Thursday, 3 November 2016

Christian Cultural Identity: The Church and Israel.

In the previous post, we began to look at how scripture defines and describes our Christian Cultural Identity If you have not read that, I recommend beginning there before reading here. We saw that both the Jew and Gentile are of equal status and united in Christ, and that the Gentile’s identity is very much tied into that of Israel. As I said previously, this is not the modern geopolitical state of Israel, but rather the ethnic people of group that was the nation of Israel (I will explain this in more depth in this post). In this post, we will begin to dig further into this topic to help better understand the Cultural Identity of a Christian. 
We find Paul expressing and describing this idea more deeply in his letter to the Ephesians, except this time he has exchanged an agricultural metaphor to more political language:

Therefore, remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility (Eph 2:11-19).
What we find in this passage is that those called ‘the uncircumcision’ (AKA Gentiles), have through Christ joined the Commonwealth of Israel. In fact, the phrase, ‘been brought near’, is taken from the Hebrew ‘kabbel’, which is the technical term for making a convert used in Jewish proselytism from the phrase: “to bring one near [kareb]... the wings of the Shekinah.” (JewishEncyclopedia). Thus, we have been proselytised into the Commonwealth of Israel. This is made possible by the blood of Jesus, and “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” This here is often taken to mean that the Law of God was annulled to let Gentiles in. For Calvin, the obstacle was more specifically the Ceremonial Law (Inst. 2.7.17). Although 'commandments' (entolon) can refer to God’s commandments (Matt 15:3), that there is not one commandment within the entire Law that restricts access to God for the Gentile, nor instructs Israel to be in a state of hostility with Gentiles, excludes this interpretation. Rather, it refers to man-made edicts, such as is used when John reports that “the Pharisees had given orders…” (Jn 11:57). Thus, Paul is talking about the ordinances set down by the likes of Rabbi Shammai (as discussed last post) who established man made rules to keep Gentiles away. As Jesus rebuked the Pharisees: “…you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Matt 23:13). And by being made one in Jesus, He has nullified this law sanctioned by the Sanhedrin, which became a deeply entrenched cultural rule and tradition, to get the Jews to realise that Gentiles are equal citizens of the Commonwealth.

What did Paul mean by Commonwealth? The word for Commonwealth, politeia, is used to denote a civil administration, constitution and way of life, and a group of citizens. This process of entering the politeia is very much like the naturalisation process of an immigrant gaining new citizenship. They are not ‘notional citizens’ like some people would see them, but are in the eyes of the rulers of that nation and in their mind, genuine Australians, Americans, Germans etc… In the same way, we are not ‘spiritual Israelites’ we are Israelites. As Paul wrote elsewhere:
“For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom 9:6)
“For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit.” (Rom 2:28-29)
“…it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.”  (Gal 3:7).
And this is consistent with the original use of politeia. The Greeks used politeia to define themselves in their Hellenistic diaspora. Being Greek was not necessarily those who lived in the region of Greece, or those who had Greek ancestry. Rather, being Greek was a matter of thought and education. Thus, in using this term, Paul is saying that by joining the politeia of Israel, they are becoming an Israelite in thought (faith in and devotion to God), education (the Torah), and practice (obedience to the commands of God).

That there is a change in ‘citizenship’ becomes evident when we examine Paul’s instruction to the believers in Ephesus in a later chapter: “you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do.” Why? Because being a Gentile was your ‘old self’ and ‘former manner of life’ (Eph 4:22-23). Paul describes the identity of the Gentile as one who is alienated by God and sinful by nature (Eph 4:18-19), and this does not fit the description of the identity of a Christian. In short, if you’re in Christ, you’re not a Gentile. Yes, we are still technically Australian, American, German etc... but we are no longer Gentiles; our true citizenship is in Israel.

So, based on Roman 11 and Ephesians 2, we can see that Gentiles do in fact adopt an Israelite identity when they become followers of Jesus. And although there are followers of Christ who are Gentile by birth, there is no such thing as a Gentile Christian. And as members of the body of Christ, we belong to the church, or ekklesia. Although a Greek, political term, the New Testament authors drew it from the Old Testament equivalent qahal. This word was translated into the Greek Old Testament (LXX) as ekklesia, and in our English translations as ‘congregation’ or ‘assembly.’ However, is it not interesting that despite being translated as ‘congregation’ in the Old Testament, that same this word is almost always translated as ‘church’ in the New Testament? And even when the NT makes reference to the ekklesia in the OT, it is translated as congregation (Acts 7:38), despite being ‘church’ in the 113 other non-political instances of the word. Why the inconsistency? Perhaps, for those wanting to promote a solid and definite division between Old and New, Israelite and Gentile, reading about ‘the church in the wilderness’ under Moses would be too challenging.

As members of the politea of Israel, Gentiles by birth can become full members of the ekklesia which originated in the Old Testament. And this is a principle, process, and practice that is not unique to the New Testament. Consider Ruth who declared to Naomi, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Also, consider the prophetic words of Isaiah: “Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people [Israel]’” (Isa 14:1). Isaiah also prophesied that this would carry over into the New Covenant: “For the Lord will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land, and sojourners will join them and will attach themselves to the house of Jacob” (Isa 56:3). 

As Scripture has shown, there is a continuity of identity from the Old into the New: Gentiles who join themselves to the Lord become Israelites. Many want to claim that they are beneficiaries of ‘the covenants of promise’, having ‘hope and belonging to God’, but do not recognise that they also belong to the ‘Commonwealth of Israel’ (Eph 2:12). As God explained to Abraham, “…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2). Not through: In. The way to inherit the covenants of promise is by being brought into his line of descendants. As Luther explains: "Through our faith in Christ Abraham gains paternity over us and over the nations of the earth according to the promise…" And by embracing this, we can find greater assurance that we will receive the benefits of this covenant promise; justification by faith to be adopted as the people of God and heirs to inherit His Kingdom (Gal 3:7-9, 29; 4:7). We can also find deeper meaning and significance when we realise that our spiritual lineage and heritage was not birthed at Pentecost in 30AD. Our roots go back to Abraham, and beyond. Not in an abstract, spiritualised, typological sense. But in a real and genuine way. 

Does this mean that we have to start speaking Hebrew, dress like Jews, eat challah bread, and live in Israel? No. There is room for cultural diversity within the commonwealth, provided it does not violate its constitution: The Scriptures. But what it does mean is that we cannot dismiss Old Testament laws and festivals as ‘Jewish’ and argue that ‘the Law was given to the Jews and not Gentiles, therefore it does not apply to us.’ This reasoning is faulty for two reasons. The first is that it is categorically incorrect because Jews are the tribe of Judah and the Law and festivals belong to God. They just happen to be given first to those people. Baptism, Communion, the Great Commission, and the Gospel were given first to the Jews, yet no one calls them Jewish. And secondly, it is irrelevant because even if they were only given to Israelites, by joining ourselves to God, we become Israelites too. Therefore, to say the Christian needs to keep the feasts etc… is not a cultural imposition as many would suggest. However, saying one must do so according to extra-biblical customs is cultural imposition. Now, there may be other grounds that these laws might be dismissed, but ‘cultural grounds’ cannot be one of them. What was given to Israel in the Old Testament is the culture of the Kingdom of God, and by joining ourselves to the King through Jesus the Messiah, we come under His constitution and enter His culture.

The church hasn’t replaced Israel. The church is Israel because there is no such thing as a Gentile Christian.

Calvin, John. (1581). Institutes of the Christian Religion. Kindle
Jewish Encyclopedia, Proselyte:
Luther, (1535). Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, (trans. T. Graebner). Kindle

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