Who Are We in Christ?

Being caught up in the fresh wind of God’s activity among the Gentiles, none of the apostles or the other Jewish believers immediately attempted to formulate a theology of Gentile identity. They just rejoiced. As we seek to formulate—or perhaps more accurately, to rediscover—that same theology today, we must remember to keep our priorities straight. We must praise God that his activity is universal and that he gives the same Holy Spirit to all who believe. But our questions still haven’t been answered, and neither had the questions of the believing Jews in Jerusalem. Before too long, two elements emerged. One group, mostly Pharisees who had accepted Christ, did not recognize the eschatological significance of the miraculous conversion of Cornelius. They argued that these Gentile believers must proselytize; they must convert to Judaism. Others, though, dissented. One of them was Sha’ul, also known as Paul, who had just come back from a mission trip to Asia Minor (known today as Turkey). He, like Peter, had witnessed God working in the lives of Gentiles. He reported that many Gentiles had come to faith in Jesus. We know from Paul’s epistles that he immediately forbade these Gentile converts from worshipping idols. They could no longer be identified as pagans. So how were they to be identified?

While the “circumcision faction” —probably a majority— answered this question by requiring conversion to Judaism, Paul refused this answer to the Gentile problem. This conflict was resolved in Acts 15 at what is now called the Jerusalem Council. First, Paul’s opponents made their case. Then Peter got up and told his story. Then Paul and Barnabas told theirs. They didn’t give a theological reason for their position. They just told their stories. For them, that was enough. They had seen firsthand how God had miraculously changed the hearts of the Gentiles who had attached themselves to Jesus. It was clear enough to Peter, Paul, and Barnabas that the Gentiles didn’t need another status change. They had been accepted just as they were.

It was James, Jesus’ brother, who gave a theological voice to the position of Peter and Paul. He quoted Amos 9:11–12: “‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name,’ says the Lord, who does these things, things known from long ago.” James reasoned that the wave of Gentiles who were coming to faith were a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. At this juncture, with James’s ruling, it became halachah — law — within the early church that Gentiles did not have to become Jews. Not only that, but their identity was just as valid and as valuable as that of the Jews. They too had an eschatological significance, they too were a fulfillment of prophecy, and they too were called by God to be part of the body of believers, just as the Jews were.

At the Jerusalem Council, then, one aspect of the identity of the Gentile believers had been confirmed. They weren’t Jews, and since the term “Jew” and “Israelite” had been synonymous since the Captivity, they couldn’t be called “Israelites” either. They were still Gentiles. But in the first century, the terms “Gentile” and “pagan” were synonymous.

Knowing this, many Two-House proponents are offended at being called “Gentiles.” To them, the terms “Gentile” and “pagan” are still synonymous today. They believe that Israel constitutes the only people of God. The negative connotation of the word goy in rabbinic literature only serves to confirm this sentiment. Yet the New Testament is clear that believing Gentiles are still called Gentiles. They remained members of the ethnē, the nations, and the apostles addressed them as such.

Yet non-idol-worshipping Gentiles were virtually unheard of. There was no precedent. New words and concepts had to be created to explain this new phenomenon, or else familiar concepts had to be adapted. The latter route is the one the New Testament authors took in identifying the Gentile converts, their place in God’s plan, and their obligations to God and to the Jewish people.

-From an unpublished book I can’t talk about yet

Receiving the SpiritIn my various roles as an author, editor, and reviewer, I occasionally receive advance copies of books that I really can’t discuss until they are published or near their publication dates. Nevertheless, as I was reading this one, I came across the above quoted section of a particular chapter and was rather taken by the content. The viewpoint of the author (who must remain nameless for now) is very much like mine, and what is written speaks to not only what I understand to be true for me, but also answers a number of my questions about who the Gentile disciples of the Master were in the first century…and maybe who they…who we really are today.

We don’t really think about it much now from a “church” point of view, but just how did the original Jewish Apostles of the Jewish Messiah see the newly-minted Gentile disciples? What sort of plan was there (if any) to integrate them into the larger Jewish faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? When a first century idol worshiper accepted being a disciple of Jesus of Nazereth, did they stop being a “Gentile” and turn into something else? If so, what did they turn into…a Jew?

Paul says no, otherwise, he wouldn’t have had any objections to Gentiles (males, that is) becoming circumcised (see Galatians 2) and actually converting to Judaism, but if the Gentiles weren’t “spiritual Jews,” what were they? More to the point, who are we now?

(I know you’re thinking “we’re Christians,” but that term didn’t exist back then, at least not as it’s defined today. Who the new, non-Jewish disciples were was a completely unsettled matter in the beginning. So who were they, and who are we?)

That, as they used to say, is the $64,000 question. But why am I even bothering to ask it, especially right now?

Another round of the “One Law” vs. “Bilateral Ecclesiology” debate has reared its ugly head, this time starting in Derek Leman’s blog post We’re Not All the Same and then continuing in Comfort, Agitation, Breakthrough (I say “raised its ugly head” not to disparage Derek’s writing or choice of themes, but just to describe the rather repetitive nature of said-discussions and their lack of concrete resolution). The comments sections of Derek’s blog posts were fresh in my mind as I was reading the text from the above-quoted book and I couldn’t let the matter go, much as I’d like to.

Besides my usual stance that non-Jews claiming obligation to a Jewish lifestyle that (apart from disdaining Mishnah, Gemara, and Talmud) mirrors actual Jewish observance dilutes and threatens to eliminate Jewish distinction from the nations, I realized there was another serious matter going on.

Consider this.

When a Gentile Christian with an attraction to Jewish observance concludes that the same 613 commandments that the Creator gave to the Israelites at Sinai are also assigned to any non-Jew who has accepted discipleship under the Jewish Messiah, then they are saying that every Christian is obligated to a Torah lifestyle. That means, astonishingly enough, that any Christian who does not observe the entire “yoke of Torah” is sinning!

And yet, the vast majority of Christians in the church have absolutely the opposite understanding of their obligations to God.

It’s one thing for a “Messianic Gentile” to say that, as a matter of conscience and personal commitment, they have taken on board behaviors such as refraining from eating Leviticus 11 “treif,” praying with a siddur, and wearing tzitzit, but it’s another thing entirely to say that, according to their own understanding of the Bible, they declare that all believers, Gentile and Jew, must perform the same mitzvot!

That’s rather cheeky.

Particularly when, based on the rather lengthy block of text I quoted at the start of this blog post, the Jewish disciples were still trying to figure out what to do with the Gentile disciples back when all this first got started. Full Torah obligation for all non-Jewish believers certainly wasn’t the obvious conclusion at which the Jewish Apostles arrived. In fact, James said that it seemed not only good to the Council, but to the Holy Spirit as well (Acts 15:28), that the full Torah lifestyle not be dumped upon the Gentiles as a whole. Further, the non-Jewish disciples not only didn’t mind not being obligated to the weight of Torah, they were actually happy about it.

So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. –Acts 15:30-32 (ESV)

PaulMaybe the movement to bring the Gentiles into discipleship with the Jewish Messiah never reached a point where matters of identity and practice were resolved before the destruction of the Temple and the final, tragic exile of the majority of Jews from their homeland. Those events paved the way for a “Gentile takeover” of this Messianic Jewish sect (which would eventually evolve into what we call “Christianity” today), such that theology and history would be re-written to remove Judaism and Jews from devotion to Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

For twenty centuries, the original vision of Paul and Peter was lost or at least significantly distorted, and only in the last few decades has their been a modern attempt at restoration.

But now we have a new problem. Originally, it was up to the Jewish sect administered by James from Jerusalem to apply a set of standards to the non-Jewish disciples, defining identity and limits to their religious practice. Today, the cart has come before the horse, so to speak. The non-Jewish disciples are doing their own defining and identifying, and to that end, summarily ignoring or disagreeing with how Jews define themselves, their participation in the Messiah, and the mechanism for practice of non-Jewish attachment to the God of Israel.

It was Paul who attempted to resolve the “Gentile identity problem” by bringing Abraham into the picture, but that story exceeds the scope of this “extra meditation”. I only want to point out that we haven’t come to the point where we fully understand how a non-Jewish person is supposed to relate to Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah, or for that matter, how (or if) our religious practice relates to Judaism. I certainly think that mainstream Christianity has missed a few things along the way, but I think that many non-Jews in the Hebrew Roots movement have “over-corrected” by jumping from a “no-Law” position to a “the Torah is totally mine” stance.

Who are we among the nations who have our identity in Christ? The Bible has a lot to say about the answer, but it doesn’t say everything, at least in a language we can understand. Once the book that has inspired this missive is available to be discussed openly, I hope to write more about this topic.

Until then, let us conclude that each of us is making personal decisions about how we choose to practice our faith relative to how “Jewish” we behave. We just don’t know how or if those decisions mesh with the intentions and desires of God for the people of the nations of the world. We certainly don’t know enough to walk into a church and condemn everyone present for not wearing kippot and tallitot.

I wrote a Part 2 to this article. I hope you’ll read it.

14 thoughts on “Who Are We in Christ?”

  1. James,
    Although I have written extensively about this subject, and have taken the time to argue the points from many different perspectives with many other believers, it is finally coming clear why this (your current subject) remains such a tangled mess.

    And I believe it is (partially) this: because we continue using the wrong terms to describe individual people, groups and belief systems we miss the opportunity to bring the much needed clarity to this seemingly unsolvable problem. The wrong terms are being applied to the wrong things. If we are going to look into the past, original languages and all that, to try and discover what the original meanings of words were and how and when they were used, fine. But unless we allow those original meanings to be accepted today as a valid part of the present debate we will continue chasing our religious tails.

    I think the decision that came from Jerusalem (Acts 15) so long ago is quite often misunderstood as to intent. It was really all about justification by YHWH, and on YHWH’s terms, and not trying to establish the identity of different people groups and where they might fit into the new order.
    That same misunderstanding can often lead to the extremes you mentioned, “all Torah” or “no Torah”. Of course it plays a part in everything in between as well.

    This may be a good time to start a dialogue on your blog. No worries. You do keep your blog well mannered :-).

  2. Hi Russ,

    Of course, the problem is getting people to agree on what the actual intent of the Acts 15 letter was/is. While I love to wrestle this issue (and many others) around, I seriously doubt we’ll come to some sort of definitive solution this side of the Messiah.

    I have no problem with a dialogue on my blog. Now all people have to do is start reading and talking. 😉

    Anybody out there?

  3. Thanks for sharing James. Hope you don’t mind my adding my 2 cents. After the blogs and discussion/debate I’ve read on this, I’m still on the fence as to my thoughts on this, but still leaning in favor. The only thing I can say is, if the gentiles feel the Holy Spirit guides them to follow Torah, who are we to tell them to do otherwise? Are we of a higher authority?[Reminds me of a Hebrew National commercial. 😉 ] Anyway, as Jews we shouldn’t feel insulted or threatened, we know who we are and are promised to be redeemed. The fact that we are still around says enough. Besides, the Messianic Christians aren’t saying that they are Jews really, only in spirit. In the times that we are living in now, we should just view them as blessing, strengthening, and being added unto us. There are others that hate us and are actually threatening existence.

  4. Hi Liz. I appreciate your two cents.

    That you don’t feel threatened or insulted if a non-Jew feels lead to wear tzitzit or lay tefillin during prayer a great, but as I’m sure you realize, not all Jewish people feel that way.

    I’m not in much of a position to tell people what to do or how to express their faith. My whole practicing faith series focused on how people may be able to express faith and righteousness in different practices. On the other hand, when a person’s choice about their faith turns into a command directed at others, there may be a problem. As I said, it’s one thing for an individual to feel drawn to wear tzitzit and another thing entirely for that person to say *everyone* who is a disciple of Jesus *must* wear tzitzit or be guilty of sin.

    I sometimes struggle with the concept of how people describe their experience with the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, I am fully convinced that God can talk to us and even help us direct our decisions and actions, but on the other hand, those experiences are entirely subjective. Is it possible for a person to really believe that the Holy Spirit has lead them in such and thus direction when in reality, their own emotions and desires were at the heart of their motivation. With a subjective experience, there’s no way for an outside person to know. Sometimes, there may be no way for the person having the experience to know. I can usually tell when I’m having a supernatural encounter when I feel lead to do something I absolutely *don’t* want to do (God tries to get me out of my comfort zone sometimes).

    Let me give you an extreme example of folks who really believe they’re being lead by the spirit but are not (my opinion…and I’m not comparing these folks to anyone in the MJ/Hebrew Roots movement…it’s just for the sake of discussion). You’ve probably heard of the Westboro Baptist Church and their activities at the funerals of our deceased military personnel. These people say what, in my opinion, are very hateful things and do great damage to grieving families at an extremely vulnerable time in their lives. Yet if you were to ask them why they do it, they’d probably say because it’s what God wants them to do.

    What I’m trying to point out is that it’s possible for a person to be truly sincere in their beliefs and still be wrong. That said, I recently told someone via email that I doubt we’ll find out what God wants “Messianic Gentiles” to do relative to the Torah commandments in any definitive sense this side of the Messiah.

    All we can do is pray, study, discuss, examine our assumptions, and do what we believe is right (in a sane way). If nothing else, we should be feeding the hungry, clothing people without adequate clothing, visiting the sick and those in prison, and comforting the depressed and grieving. If we do that, I suspect we’re following more Torah than a lot of people who are concerned about how to tie their tzitzit or whether to stand or kneel in prayer.

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Liz

  5. “On the other hand, when a person’s choice about their faith turns into a command directed at others, there may be a problem. As I said, it’s one thing for an individual to feel drawn to wear tzitzit and another thing entirely for that person to say *everyone* who is a disciple of Jesus *must* wear tzitzit or be guilty of sin.”

    Speaking for myself, I haven’t encountered anyone that has really said that. But you’re right we do need to be more careful about pushing our beliefs on others. I can see myself bordering on being guilty of that as well.

    “Sometimes, there may be no way for the person having the experience to know. I can usually tell when I’m having a supernatural encounter when I feel lead to do something I absolutely *don’t* want to do (God tries to get me out of my comfort zone sometimes).”

    Very true, it does usually involve stepping out of the comfort zone. But maybe for some, following this way is stepping out of the comfort zone. Shouldn’t it be preferable to the nailed to the cross and done away with type of thinking?

    “If nothing else, we should be feeding the hungry, clothing people without adequate clothing, visiting the sick and those in prison, and comforting the depressed and grieving. If we do that, I suspect we’re following more Torah than a lot of people who are concerned about how to tie their tzitzit or whether to stand or kneel in prayer.”

    Fair enough. That is what Yeshua has been saying more or less in the gospels after all…

    Thanks James! Looking forward to reading more of your blog.

  6. I guess, from my point of view, when someone says, that “Gentiles who are grafted in through the blood of Jesus are obligated to the full weight of the Torah,” they are, by default, including all Gentile Christians in that requirement. I’ve encountered non-Jews who refer to themselves as “former Christians” and who are very angry at “the church” for “lying” to them about the Torah.

    These sort of folks aren’t just making personal decisions for their own worship and spiritual behavior. They’re implicitly stating that any non-Jewish believer who doesn’t feel obligated to the 613 commandments and doesn’t feel lead to obey most of the Torah mitzvot (many “grace not law” Christians obey significant portions of the Torah, such as helping others in need…they just don’t call it “Torah”) are actually sinning. When you give your Christian next-door neighbor dirty looks because he’s mowing his lawn on a Saturday afternoon, that’s crossing the line, in my opinion.

    Blaming a person or an institution for not agreeing with your personal point of view is no way to get them to even consider your perspective. Anger is a very poor teacher, but many people in Hebrew Roots seem to be very angry at the church. The “movement” seems to attract people who may already have “issues” with their faith and those people need to separate what they feel their obligations are to God from any problems they may have with God or at least with their prior religious experiences.

    All that said, there are many fine and well-grounded non-Jews in Hebrew Roots/Messianic Judaism who sincerely feel called to a higher (or different) level of righteousness than is taught in most Christian churches today. If they choose to respond to that calling, that is probably a justifiable response as they continue on their path of faith. As long as they don’t try to make the same choice for another person, that’s OK. It would also help if they’d consider the impact of their decisions on their Jewish neighbors.

  7. I just remembered something that happened over the Passover that could be an example of whether we should or shouldn’t all follow Torah the same.
    True story: During Pesach, there was a neighbor celebrating with their family and friends in our building, but the lights they were to keep on during Shabbat went out. They weren’t going to touch the lights to fix it or change the light bulb, so they were all gathered in the living room in the dark. One had come out of the apartment and asked someone coming into the building to please come and help fix the lights for them. If all believers were following exactly the same, or were not to associate with people who don’t, this family probably would have been staying in the dark for their first night of Pesach.

    I’m sure there are other and maybe better examples, but there is also the fact that not all Christians feel called to follow all of Torah, and neither should Jew or Gentile look down their noses at those who do/don’t or dissuade from it. (But that’s just my evolving thought on the matter for whatever it’s worth Lol!)

  8. It’s an interesting example and there is a history of some Jews asking their non-Jewish neighbors to perform tasks they themselves couldn’t do on Shabbos. However, using a Shabbos Goy (link leads to an article on the topic) is also forbidden according to halachah. I hope you’ve read Part 2 and Part 3 of this series, since together, they expand on the whole “identity” thing of Jews and Gentles relative to the Messiah and service to God.

    Thanks for your continued comments.

  9. “However, using a Shabbos Goy (link leads to an article on the topic) is also forbidden according to halachah.” Yeah kind of why I was saying maybe not the best example…

    I had thought I was already subscribed for new posts, but I guess I somehow missed the check box. Will bookmark the other posts later.

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