Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Christian Cultural Identity: Jew vs Gentile

As the ‘Like’ emojis on Facebook have recently revealed, Halloween has come and gone. In Australia, this annual event has never had a strong following. Growing up, our observance of the day involved little more than watching the latest Simpson's ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episode. I think we had trick-or-treaters once, but that’s about it. Recently it has developed a greater following here. Shops have begun selling Halloween merchandise and more people are celebrating it. But overall, Halloween is seen by most Australians as an irrelevant American celebration, at least the way it is observed today, and that it should be left over there. This country, despite its claims to multiculturalism, is really resistant to cultural imposition. And I’m sure that is true of many other countries too. And this comes back to the importance of Cultural Identity. Cultural Identity is what gives people meaning and understanding about their place in the world, it shapes and forms how they live, and it gives them a firm foundation upon which they can find dignity, value, and self-worth. And to impose another culture onto this is to challenge this foundation.

And we could say the same thing about our Christian identity and practices. It is important that we can discern between what is cultural and what is scriptural when it comes to the way we practice our faith or, live out our Christian Cultural Identity. It is important that scripture shapes and informs our Christian Cultural Identity and refuses the imposition of any cultural practice outside of scripture.
But what does the Bible say about the cultural identity of the Christian? How are we to understand who we are as followers of Christ? What does it mean and how does it look to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven? Over the next three blog posts we are going to be exploring scripture to better understand this identity. Originally, I had planned for this to be only one post. But because of the size of the topic, it has turned into two. And this is just a warm up.

For the Christian, our identity is very much tied up with the person of Christ. Scripture tells us that in Him, we are holy and blameless new creations, free from condemnation, co-heirs and sons of God, belong to the body of Christ, citizens of God’s Kingdom, we have purpose, hope and eternal life and many others (Crossing Church). And because all who follow Jesus are united in Him, our global cultural identity has no advantage over another. As Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (Rom 10:12). In other words, because He is the God of both Jews and Gentiles, “he will show himself to be kind to all who will acknowledge and call on him as their God” (Calvin).
Much of the book of Romans is addressing the conflict between Jews and Gentiles.

 The Jews saw themselves as superior because they were God’s chosen people and the Gentiles were a bunch of ‘Johnny-come-latelys’ and therefore not real covenant members. This was an issue in many first-century communities of faith, and something that Paul addresses in the letter to the Ephesians. He explains that in Christ, both Jew and Gentile have been unified into “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 2:15-16). The term new man most likely comes from the Latin phrase novus homo, which was a term to describe someone from the lower classes of society who was the first in their family to achieve senatorial status. But despite being recognised by the State as genuine senators, those who were senators by birth did not recognise them as such (Rosenquist, 2016). The same thing was happening with the Gentile believers as the Jewish believers were treating them as lower class citizens. This mindset comes from the edicts of Rabbi Shammai, who around 10AD founded a major Pharisaical school of thought that believed only descendants of Abraham were beloved by God and thought only extremely exceptional Gentiles should convert. This belief was articulated in what is known as the ‘18 Edicts’ that enforced the separation of Jews and Gentiles (Richardson, 2003). Within these edicts was a declaration that even though a Gentile may live out a life entirely faithful to the Torah, they were not really a Jew unless they underwent formal conversion (Rosenquist, 2016). This kind of thinking had flowed over into the New Covenant community and therefore required Paul to respond by declaring that the Gentiles did not have to undergo formal conversion to Judaism to be saved (which is the context for the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15), and that the Gentiles are of equal status.

And the Gentiles saw themselves as the new way and “scorned everything Jewish – and very likely with a number of intermediate positions” (Moo, 1996: 21). So, as well as dealing with Jewish feelings of superiority, Paul also had to deal with Gentile pride. This is why he reminded them that the Jews are the foundation from which the Gentiles have entered into covenant with God through Jesus (Rom 11), and that there was a time when they were not members of the covenant community of God (Eph 2:11-12). And so one of Paul’s major purposes in many of his letters is to say that neither Jews nor Greeks (Gentiles) are better than the because both are under sin (Rom 3:9), and that God is the creator, Lord, and saviour of both Jews and Gentiles (Rom 3:29-30). This is why, in Christ, there is no Jew or Gentile in God’s eyes because both are of equal status (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11).

And this is one of the many great truths of the Gospel; that people of all nationalities are welcomed to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. People everywhere can experience salvation without becoming Jews. And this was a mental obstacle in Peter’s mind that needed to be overcome through the vision of the sheet and his encounter with Cornelius: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). But it is interesting what the church has done with this idea.
There is a perception that because Gentiles do not have to adopt ‘Jewish cultural practices’ to be saved, that their identity remains radically distinct. Ironically, through the process of upholding their equality, they have maintained their separation.  And of course, many cultural distinctions would remain. Language, food, dress, extra-biblical practices, and extra-biblical values can remain distinct. This is very much like how no two people from the same culture become exactly the same when they become followers of Jesus, but are united in their faith. Scripture, however, seems to suggest that rather than maintaining their Gentile identity, followers of Jesus who are Gentile by birth actually take on a new identity. And this becomes evident when we examine Romans 11, Ephesians 2, and the origins of the word ‘church’.

In Romans 11, Paul is addressing the Gentiles about their spiritual heritage and explains:
…if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true…. if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.                          (Rom 11:13,17-20,24).
Here is an agricultural metaphor, explaining how Gentiles have been ‘grafted onto’ an olive tree, a symbol of Israel (Jer 11:16). I should explain that I am not describing the modern geopolitical state of Israel. But rather, the nation of people who were united in their covenant with God.  And with grafting branches, the new branch assumes and takes on the identity of the tree it has joined. It ceases to be a member of the old tree, and now becomes a part of the new tree. So, through this imagery Paul is saying is that Gentiles have joined Israel, thus becoming a part of them as if they were a natural member. And in doing so, he is getting the boastful Gentiles to remember the origins of their salvation and to realise “that they did not otherwise grow up as God’s people than as they were grafted in the stock of Abraham” (Calvin). There is no Gentile and Jewish tree, but one tree representing Israel as ‘members of the same body’ (Eph 3:6). Note too, the order this takes place. The Gentiles join Israel, it’s not the Jews who join the Gentiles. In the Gospel, an Israelite identity maintains priority. As I often heard in the Army, “you joined us, we didn’t join you.”

In part two, we are going to examine Ephesians 2 to examine more deeply what it means for a Gentile to be grafted into Israel. 


Calvin, John. Romans. Kindle
Crossing Church. Our Identity in Christ According to the Scriptures:
Moo, (1996). The Epistle to the Romans.
Richardson, (2003). Origins of Our Faith: The Hebrew Roots of Christianity.
Rosenquist, (2016). The Bridge: Crossing Over Into the Fullness of Covenant Life. Kindle

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