The task for defining the identity of Gentile converts was largely left to the Apostle Paul, the self-described “apostle to the Gentiles.” Modern social-scientific studies on the Bible have called Paul an “entrepreneur of identity” or a “social entrepreneur” who was engaged in forming the identity of his Gentile converts, creating for them a definition of who they were and mapping their relationships with other social groups. To do this, Paul used some metaphors that were drawn from the Old Testament and others that were drawn from Roman society. Taken together, they help give substance and definition to the identity of Gentile believers in Jesus. We will find that even though they do not become Jewish, neither do they remain an undifferentiated part of their pagan society. Paul “invents” a new identity for them and uses variegated imagery to describe that identity. Romans 4:16–17 and Galatians 3:7–9 contain one of Paul’s most powerful metaphors for describing Gentile identity. Paul claims that believing Gentiles are children of the forefather of the Jewish people, Abraham himself! His argument is that since Abraham believed when he was uncircumcised, he is not only the father of the Jews, his biological descendants, but also of all those throughout history who have had “the faith of Abraham.”
It is worthwhile to note that Paul leaves out the other two forefathers of the Jewish people, Isaac and Jacob. By limiting Gentile identity to children of Abraham, he makes it clear that these Gentiles are not part of “Israel” – a name reserved for Jacob’s descendants. However, God promised that Abraham would become the father of many nations, as recorded in Genesis 17:4. Paul sees the believing Gentiles as a fulfillment of that promise. They are still members of the “nations” (Gr. ethnē, Heb. goyim) but their new identity allows them to be simultaneously children of Abraham (and therefore heirs to the promise of Abraham) and members of the nations.
Paul takes great pains to emphasize that the covenant of promise which helps define Gentile identity in Christ is the Abrahamic covenant and not the Sinai covenant. His repeated contrast of these two covenants, especially in Galatians, is meant to drive home the point that though the Gentile converts are children of Abraham, they are not children of Israel, nor did they stand at the foot of Mount Sinai and receive the Torah.
Despite their shared ancestry in Abraham and their shared inheritance in the promise to Abraham, believing Gentiles and Jews have differing obligations to God. Paul also includes his Gentile converts as citizens of a kingdom. Variously described as the “kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; Galatians 5:19–21), the “kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:12), and the “kingdom of the Son” (Colossians 1:13), Paul uses “kingdom” to indicate the Gentile believer’s eschatological political situation. In other words, who is the Gentile believer’s ultimate authority? Is he still nothing more than a subject of the Roman emperor, while the Jewish people have an eschatological King to look forward to? Paul’s answer is that Gentile believers, like their Jewish brethren, are included in the reign of Jesus Christ. He is their King, and they are his citizens. They have transferred their allegiance from the reign of Caesar to the reign of Christ, a reign that will come into its fullness at his return. This metaphor may underlie the language of citizenship in a commonwealth in Ephesians 2, discussed below. Paul used the imagery of slavery and freedom as well. He regarded Gentile idolaters as “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:20–21) and to “the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (Galatians 4:9). Typical of Jewish attitudes toward idolatry, Paul associated it with all kinds of immoral behavior—behavior that led naturally from idolatry, and that was in some way an involuntary consequence of idolatry, dictated by God (Romans 1:18–32). This status of slavery has been removed through obedience to Christ (Romans 6:17–18). The Gentile believers are now free from sin and slaves to obedience (v. 16), to righteousness (v. 19), and to God (v. 22). Paul describes this process as redemption (apolytrosis), a word normally used to describe the ransom, or buying back, of prisoners of war or captive slaves. Paul envisions his Gentile converts as more than just freed slaves; they are adopted children, brought into God’s family (Galatians 4:5).
Another metaphor Paul uses is the term “in Christ” (Romans 8:1; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:17). In contrast to those who are “in Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:22), those who are in Christ “belong to the new aeon with its freedom and life.” Gentile believers are no longer identified with the old way of life that characterizes sinful humanity; “in Christ” they participate in the eschatological community that Christ inaugurated, the community that foreshadows the ultimate redemptive era, the World to Come.
“Salvation” or the idea of being “saved” is very common in the Pauline corpus and is probably the most popular term used today to describe the action that brings someone into the community of faith—and rightly so. Believers are saved, or rescued, from this world, just as the Jewish people were saved from slavery in Egypt or the captivity in Babylon.
-Also from the book I’m reading that I can’t talk about yet
Updated! See the end of this blog post for details.
I couldn’t resist a “part 2” since these concepts and this discussion won’t leave me alone right now. I suppose it’s an issue that is really at the core of most of Christianity. Who are we in Christ? What does a Christian identity mean to me? What does it mean for a non-Jewish person to accept discipleship under the Jewish Messiah and King?
More plainly put, just who in the heck do we think we are?
Actually, that last question is really part of the problem. There’s (in all likelihood) a difference (probably a whopping big one) between who God thinks we are in Christ and who we think we are in Christ/Messiah (depending on our particular denominational orientation). It’s kind of interesting to think that Paul was the one to actually figure out (or make up) an answer to “the Gentile question.” I mentioned this in yesterday’s part 1 of Who Are We in Christ and decided I should allow the “other shoe to drop,” so to speak.
For the sake of some folks in the Hebrew Roots movement, I thought I should include what should be (but isn’t) obvious, in that if we claim a connection to Israel through Abraham, as our mysterious author tells us, “Paul leaves out the other two forefathers of the Jewish people, Isaac and Jacob.” Interesting, eh? If Abraham is “the father of many nations,” then he is father to more than just Israel. Islam also claims him, and because of Paul, so does Christianity. I seriously doubt most Christians (or any Hebrew Roots folks) would seriously consider Islam to be part of Israel through Abraham, so how can we justify Christianity being synonymous with Israel?
Or can we?
The Christian church hasn’t had to struggle with its identity for a long time. For many centuries, it (we) have been secure in the knowledge that we were the spiritual inheritors of all of the covenant promises because the Law (and the Jewish people along with it) was nailed to the cross of Christ and we were adopted by God’s grace to supplant the descendents of Sinai.
Except that isn’t so clear anymore.
Periodically, I become aware of articles that describe a general exodus from the church, especially by young singles and families who feel their needs are not being met. Some of those needs are spiritual, and the church in the early 21st century, appears to be leaning toward a kind of “entertainment” model to bring in and keep parishioners. Except that may not be what they really want or rather, what they (we) really need.
Some of those disaffected Christians make their way into the Hebrew Roots movement, hoping to find a deeper understanding of their faith and a richer and more robust God than the one they left behind in the Christian Bible class. We all have a tremendous need to feel close to God and sometimes we do that by asking questions and posing puzzles the church (or most of it) doesn’t want to deal with. Hebrew Roots, on the surface, seems to offer those kinds of answers, but it’s sort of an illusion. For a lot of people, “different” means “better” and it takes them a long time to realize that such may not be the case. Also the “stuff” that goes along with Judaism (Messianic and otherwise) is very compelling.
Wearing fringes makes you closer to God. Avoiding ham sandwiches makes you closer to God. Wearing a “beanie” makes you closer to God. It’s really cool stuff. But is it your stuff, or are the Gentiles entering Hebrew Roots merely attracted to playing with someone else’s toys because the toys look brand new, are from different toy stores, and are really cool?
I suppose that’s kind of a mean statement, but I think that fits some Hebrew Roots Gentiles.
For the rest, I think you’re like me. You really do feel there’s a larger reality to who you are and who God is than you’ve been presented with so far. However, I exited traditional Christianity, entered, and then (eventually) existed One Law because it didn’t satisfy what I was looking for either. Ultimately, I had to conclude that “doing Jewish” wasn’t who I really am and that whoever the first century Gentile disciples were, their identity wasn’t “doing Jewish” either.
There’s a mystery that needs to be solved and I think there’s an answer available. Maybe it’s not the final answer, but it beats settling for someone else’s identity because it’s not easy to find your (our) own. If the identity of the Gentile disciple of the Jewish Messiah isn’t in your local Baptist, Lutheran, or non-denominational church, and it’s not in assuming a Jewish identity with all the “bells and whistles” (minus Talmud which tends to put most Hebrew Roots people off), then we may need to start digging a little deeper.
I think enlisting the aid of some reliable Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish teachers is a good way to start. If folks, such as my (presently) anonymous author, are taking the time to tell us who Gentiles aren’t in the world of the Jewish King, I think they’ll be more than happy to help us discover who we really are in Christ.
Stay tuned. My commentary on this week’s Torah portion speaks more to this issue and greatly expands upon it. Please give it a read and let me know what you think.