Stumbling Block or Stepping Stone
In my estimation some Christians in America have been a stumbling block rather than a stepping stone to ethnic Israel. Popularized readings of Scripture such as Dispensationalism and certain forms of Millennialism have limited the effectiveness of those who persistently hold to certain aspects of those theological systems.
Many of us have failed to grasp the significance of what God has done in Jesus when it comes to understanding the relationship between the Church and ethnic Israel. We have confused the definition of God’s new covenant people with the ethnicity of ancient Israel. To be fair certain hermeneutical maneuvers are made in order to maintain a literal interpretation of Scripture. But such a move is unwarranted. We need to look more closely to what the New Testament writers, particularly Paul (whose letters are the oldest documents in the NT, predating the Gospels) interpret Scripture (LXX). We have contradicted the teachings of Apostle and Rabbi Paul, who argued for the unity of the people God made up of both Jew and gentile marked by faith in Jesus Christ rather than ethnic identity, circumcision, and boasting.
Paul is not anti-semitic. Paul loves his people and wants to see them experience the promises God had made to their father Abraham (Romans 9–11). Paul insists that although the Jew has advantages because of his proximity to God’s calling, covenant, promises, and law, the Jew also is found guilty of sin and in need of the redemption God has provided in His son Jesus the Messiah of Israel and Kyrios of the world. Ethnicity as a badge for identifying the people of God is a precarious thing. Abraham, the mixed multitude coming out of Egypt, Ruth, and the genealogy of David among other things show how God does not simply identify His people by ethnicity. Rather God searches the hearts of men. What God desires is a people who have His law written on their hearts and who obey Him (Deuteronomy 30:1–11). In Romans Paul points out the misguided pride and boasting of the Jewish teacher of Torah (Romans 2:17–4:25). Paul finds the Jewish teacher also to be guilty of breaking the law which he so proudly teaches the gentiles. He too is a lawbreaker and like the gentile he too must call on the name of Yahweh in an act of covenant renewal. Paul argues that Yahweh has acted consistently in the faithfulness of Messiah Jesus. Yahweh has been righteousness and impartial in His dealing with Israel and the gentiles.
So for us to continue to make social and political evaluations and decisions based on faculty theological interpretation is a dangerous practice. Rather than the Church being a social critic like Jesus and the prophets of Israel who spoke about their contemporary situation in light of Scripture, we find ourselves looking away when there is transgression, unrighteousness, social inequality, and rejection of Israel’s Messiah Jesus. This behavior is not that of a Christian or a “Jew” according to Paul. We have failed to see the vocation of Israel according to Scripture. Rather than supporting unrighteousness, we ought to call those who identify with God based on their their ethnic identity to live up to their calling and vocation, which Jesus the Righteous One has done on behalf of God’s people, for the Jew first and also for the gentile (Romans 1:16–17; Habakkuk 2:4). Israel is to be God’s righteous people and representative among the nations. Israel is to be a light to the gentiles. Who is Israel? Paul would argue the restore eschatological people of God are not categorized and identified along ethnic, gender, nor social lines. For God’s people are no longer marked off as Jew and gentile, male and female, and master and slave. Rather, we are identified with Christ. So I call the Church—the Israel of God, made up of Jews and gentiles—to live up to its vocation as the light of the nations and a demonstration to ethnic Israel that Yahweh has been faithful according to the covenant when He acted in His son Jesus to save both Jew and gentile from impending judgment and wrath upon their sins.
I’ve written this article in response to the opening paragraphs of Richard Hayes’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, where he seeks to refute the notion that Paul hates the Jews. Paul did not hate his own. Paul would have given up everything for the renewal and restoration of his fellow brothers, the Jews. With that stated, my prayer is that well-intentioned Christians would call Israel to live up to her vocation. The Church does this best when she preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ, that is, God has raised Jesus from the dead, forgiving Israel of her sins and a sign of the future restoration of all Israel, both ethnic Jews and gentiles who both believe in Jesus. The Church fails when she unwisely supports political activities that are a cloak for nationalism, ethnocentrism. Although this support is sometimes warranted, other times it is against the righteousness of God. As Christians we must to submit to and respect human governments regardless of their religious convictions. However this does not mean that we cease from proclaiming the truth of the gospel of Jesus. Rather we pray that our governments do justice knowing that they too are subject to the judgment of God. With this in mind we don’t turn a blind eye to injustice, give unwavering support to, and refuse to proclaim Christ because the government has the advantage of the Jewish teacher of Romans 3. Like Paul we must proclaim that righteousness of God demonstrated in the faithfulness of Jesus to both Jew and gentile alike. This is the vocation of the Church. It is in the preaching of the gospel God will save all Israel. This is the calling of the Church (Matthew 28:16–20). Let us not be a stumbling block to Jew rather let us be a stepping stone so that they might see that the stone the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. This is not anti-semitism. Rather it is a call back to Yahweh in a moment of covenant renewal for the Jew and a moment of covenant making for the gentile. As Christians we become “Jews” in the sense that Paul’s defines a Jew in Romans 2. We are one people of God united in Messiah. As Christians we adopt Jewish categories of thinking, we adopt the Jewish worldview, stories, symbols, praxis, and answers to the why questions of life. There is continuity between the old and new covenants. We are what Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah saw coming at the time of the restoration of Israel.
Several days ago I tuned on the 700 Club to see what that organization was up too. There was a segment on the Day of Atonement that involved an interview with a Christian Jew who explained the lessons the church could learn from this Jewish holy day. There was no discussion of Christ as the final once-and-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the world. Rather there was a brief description of the importance of that day in the Jewish community. This was a good thing. My concern lies in this that the host of the TV show would ask and answer the question, “Does God forgive sins apart from Christ?” I’m not being disrespectful or intolerant. The aim in my criticism is the misguided teachings of such Christian organizations who on one hand cling to the modern Israel state and Judaism for selfish and manipulative purposes but on the other hand will not sensitive to issues of social injustice, racial inequality, and other issues of justice that arise in America and in the middle east. There is a blind allegiance and blank check that is extended to some people who outright deny Christ and have no interest in Christ, but because their ethnic identity is connected with the Bible and God’s redemptive purposes everything they do must be OK and righteous. This is inconsistent with ancient Israelites such as the prophets, John, Jesus, Paul, and the other NT writers. These members of the House of Israel would call their people to task. Ethnic identity and the practice of prescribed cultic rites don’t go hand and hand with whether one is righteous. They do not indicate covenant status any longer.
Let me say that I did not write this article to show disrespect toward Judaism, Israel, or Jews. Rather, I’ve written because I feel that it is because of Messiah Jesus and Rabbi Paul that I have gained entrance into God’s covenant people, Israel—made up of ethnic Jews and grafted-in gentiles. But this covenant people are now marked off by faith in Jesus Christ rather than circumcision and ethnic identity. Certain Christian groups use the nation of Israel, the Jewish people, and Judaism as a cloak for their nationalism, patriotism, and ethnic pride. They would rather watch injustice and unrighteousness take place rather than seek reconciliation and peace between ethnic groups. Is this not why Jesus came? He came to bridge the divide between Jew and gentile. The divide was made clear by the practice of Torah. Torah practice marked off the Jew from the gentile. This was a good thing in a certain sense. But it focused sin upon Israel which find itself as guilty as the gentile sinner. We must not and should not encourage division. Preach the gospel of peace. We must allow our governments to care for the good of their peoples and to pursue their interests. But we must be careful not to adopt their values and goals because they appear to force God to fulfill His promises about the last days. Such Christian groups support Israel for their own selfish pursuits. Rather encourage the nation of Israel to do righteousness they standby and watch innocent people murdered. The modern Israeli state has a right to exist. But all must act careful and cautiously. Many innocent people have died on both sides. Christians must not be biased because the Jews appear to have God’s favor due to their ethnic identity and end-time prophecies. These Christians have misread Scripture and fail to see what God called “Israel” to do. We cannot confuse what God means by “Israel” in Scripture with modern Israel. Yahweh God is an impartial judge who looks into the hearts of both Jews and non-Jews. Both groups will stand before Him in judgment. We must not stand in the way of Yahweh, nor must we think that unrighteousness is His way. We must hold up God’s law and righteousness to both Jew and gentile. Jesus will hold us accountable for the unrighteousness we have promoted and supported.