After Sunday School class last week you asked me to clarify my point that it was significant that in the incarnation God had assumed Jewish flesh for our salvation. So, I am writing this brief paper for you. I made that point in response to your statement, Marty, that the church is the result of God's action in rejecting the Jews and starting over again with Jesus. I will try to explain below why I believe that God could not reject the Jews and then, hopefully, this will lead into an expansion of my statement that Jesus being born a Jew is essential to our salvation.
To understand the nature of God's relationship with the Jews and Jesus, I think it is best to go back and explore the nature of his relationship with Israel, his covenant people, as it is presented to us in the Old Testament scriptures. As a Sunday School teacher and knowledgeable Christian, you are no doubt familiar with most and know in detail many of the stories in these scriptures. I would like to look at them from a perspective of God's covenant with Israel. What was this covenant, who was involved, and what was its purpose?
Let's start with Abraham. The first statement of God's covenant with him is found in Genesis 12: "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." Here God tells Abraham that from him God will raise up a great nation which will both be blessed and be the source of blessing for all people. Here we have a particular covenant between God on the one hand and Abraham and what will become the nation of Israel on the other. Through this particular covenant we also see a universal1 blessing, a blessing for both this chosen people and for the rest of humankind. Right from the beginning, God is planning to bless all people through this people, the Jews. They are to be the bearers of divine revelation and divine reconciliation.
The story of this covenant and choosing continues through Abraham's descendents, to the people of Israel in captivity, and is reiterated in the law given to and through Moses at Sinai. Leviticus 26:12 relates Yahweh speaking to Israel: "I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people." But the Lord goes on to tell the Israelites that if they are not faithful to his commands they will be punished. Note he never tells them that they will stop being his people or that he will stop being their God. I believe that God cannot ever break this covenant he has made with Israel and still be true to himself. Neither will he allow Israel to destroy the covenant relationship, because the faithfulness of his side of the relationship still remains.2 In this judgement due to disobedience, however, we do see a second side of Israel's covenant relationship with God: if they do not fulfill their part of the agreement to be God's people by living in obedience to him, they will bring judgement upon themselves and in effect be cursed. This judgement reveals humankind's inadequacy to reach God or obtain salvation through their own efforts and is actually therefore inevitable.
This double movement of both blessing and curse continues as throughout their history (continuing to the present day) the Israelites draw near to God and then pull away and then draw near and then pull away, over and over again. Throughout this double movement we see the vicarious (on behalf of) nature of Israel's relationship with God. When they are obedient and blessed, this blessing is for the sake of all people. When they do not follow Yahweh, he judges them and they take on themselves the punishment that is due all nations. This is seen in the Hebrew scriptures in the period of the judges, the good and bad kings, and the horrible exile from the land and eventual return of a remnant of the people. Through this cycle as God draws nearer and nearer to his people, his people inevitably suffer as they run away from him, bringing judgement upon themselves as God's love and truth and holiness reveal their own inadequacies and brokenness. Each time they fall away, however, there is an eventual reconciliation, an eventual restoration, and an eventual healing which takes place. God draws them near to himself because he is faithful even in their unfaithfulness. Because Israel is chosen, she must suffer, be destroyed, and be reborn. This cycle points forward to the ultimate suffering and reconciliation seen in the cross and resurrection of Christ.3
Eventually God became so close to his people Israel, despite their disobedience, that he hid himself within them. God became flesh, Jewish flesh, and was born as a mortal in the very person of Jesus Christ. Jesus was and had to be a Jew as the whole culmination of God's covenant relation with Israel and the nature of that relationship's blessing for the whole world. If Jesus had not been a Jew, the world would still be waiting for the blessing to come through Israel. If Jesus had not been a Jew, we as Christians would not even know the revelation of God that we have in the Old Testament.4 In Jesus, God finishes5 the work of revealing himself to the whole world through Israel in a Jewish man. Also in Jesus, God completes5 the act of reconciliation of humankind to himself by offering up the perfect human response which no other Israelite had been able to offer - and so the blessing initially promised is realized. It is simply amazing that God became human and offered up the perfect human and divine response for us. It is also tremendously significant and important, as the culmination of all of God's promises to bless the nations through Israel, that Jesus was and still is a Jew. His life is the center point of God's plan through history for our salvation. This plan, as we have seen was to work through the Jewish people, who vicariously represent and take the place of all other people, for both blessings and judgement. Only as a Jew then could Jesus come and both bless the whole world and simultaneously take the judgement which the whole world deserved upon himself.6
It is in looking at Israel's relationship with God, Marty, that I think we can see ourselves as followers of God through Christ today. My own brokenness and sin and rebellion become all the more apparent as I become more aware of God's love and his perfect nature. I try to push away because I don't want to see and I don't want God to see my sin. But as I submit to him, he lifts me from the brokenness and suffering of my sin and embraces me as his child. In relationship with him I am restored; I am whole.7 I find God's blessing through relationship with Jesus Christ and draw near to God through the perfect human response he has already offered for me. I come to know personally the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. Because Jesus our mediator is a Jew we our offered continuity with the creator God.
Through all of this, though, has God rejected the Jews as a new people of God emerge as followers of Christ? Not all of the Jews, indeed only a small number, recognized Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God and formed the nucleus of the church which then reached out to the Gentile world. What of the Jews that have not responded to God through Jesus? And what about the church's relationship to Israel today? As I have said, I do not believe that God can ever abandon Israel, despite their rejection of him.8 They are part of God's family. I also noted above that each time Israel fell away there was eventual restoration. Paul, himself a Jew, looked forward to the ultimate restoration of all of Israel into obedient relationship to God. In the eleventh chapter of Romans, he speaks of how they will ultimately be brought back once more. Two verses in particular are amazing: "Ö Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be savedÖ" (25,26) Paul states clearly that all of Israel will be reconciled to God after he has completed his work of also reconciling the Gentiles to himself. Thus as the church today we should pray in obediance with this aspect of God's will for the Jews and for their restoration.9
Anderson, Ray S.
1998 ST514 Expanded Lecture Syllabus. ST514 - Reconciliation and the Healing of Persons. Pasadena, California: Fuller Theological Seminary.
1949 Dogmatics in Outline. G. T. Thomson, trans. New York: Philosophical Library, 72-81.
Kraus, C. Norman
1990 Jesus Christ Our Lord. Revised edition. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press.
1986 The Mission of Christians and Jews. Edinburgh: The Handsel Press.
Torrance, Thomas F.
1992 The Mediation of Christ. Revised edition. Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard.
1983 Foundations of Dogmatics. Vol. 2. Darrell L. Guder, trans. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 56-58.
Return to paper index