The most momentous decision the early Christian movement had to make was on the status of Gentiles who wished to join it. That Gentiles should join the movement was not in itself problematic, since there was a widespread Jewish expectation, based on biblical prophecies, that in the last days the restoration of God’s own people Israel would be accompanied by the conversion of the other nations to the worship of the God of Israel. Since the early Christians believed that the messianic restoration of Israel was now under way in the form of their own community, it would not have been difficult for them to recognize that the time for the conversion of the nations was also arriving. What was much less clear, however, was whether Gentiles who came to faith in Jesus the Messiah should become Jews, getting circumcised (in the case of men) and adopting the full yoke of Torah, or whether they could remain Gentiles while enjoying the same blessings of eschatological salvation that Jewish believers in Jesus did.
“Chapter 16: James and the Jerusalem Council Decision” (pg 178)
Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations
This should be a familiar theme to those of you who regularly read my blog. I spent a considerable amount of time and effort reviewing Luke’s Acts, thanks largely to D. Thomas Lancaster’s Torah Club series Chronicles of the Apostles, published by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ). I was pleased to find that several of the articles in Rudolph’s and Willitts’ book addressed the same issues. But let’s back up a step.
Darrell Bock, in “Chapter 15: The Restoration of Israel in Luke-Acts” sets the stage for the drama of Gentile inclusion into a branch of normative Judaism by deconstructing the traditional Christian view of these books of scripture.
Burge argues for a landless and nationless theology in which the equality of Jew and Gentile in Christ is the key ecclesiological reality. In this view, Jesus as Temple or as forming a new universal Temple community becomes the locus for holy space. Israel is absorbed into the church and hope in the land is spiritualized to refer to a restored earth.
This chapter seeks to redress the balance. When I speak of Israel in this essay it is the Jewish people I have in mind as opposed to new Israel.
-Bock, pg 168
It is true that Luke-Acts is really all about the Gentiles. According to Bock…
Luke-Acts was written between CE 60 and 80 in part to legitimate the inclusion of Gentiles in an originally Jewish movement according to God’s plan. Theopolis (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1) is a Jesus-believing Gentile who needs assurance. Luke-Acts presents Jesus as God’s exalted and vindicated bearer of kingdom promise, forgiveness, and life for all who believe, Jew and Gentile. The bestowal of God’s Spirit marks the new era’s arrival…This message completes the promises made to Abraham and Israel centuries ago.
-ibid, pp 168-9
The Messiah movement was a wholly owned and operated franchise of Judaism (if you’ll forgive the slight levity here). It’s only natural to imagine that Gentiles hearing that they too could join might have been skeptical about the reality of this promise and the status that they would (or wouldn’t) be granted. Luke means to reassure them that they will be equal sharers in the blessings made to Israel, but make no mistake, there is another side to Luke’s narrative.
Luke argues that the church roots its message in ancient promises, a story in continuity with Israel’s promised hope found in God’s covenantal promises to her. The entire saga involves Israel’s restoration. For all that Gentile inclusion and equality in the new community brings, we never lose sight of the fact that it is Israel’s story and Israel’s hope that brings blessing to the world, just as Genesis 12:3 promised.
Nothing Luke, let alone Bock, writes allows Gentile inclusion to delegitimize the Jewish people as God’s people and nation Israel. Messiah is depicted as “the light to the Gentiles and the glory of Israel” (pg 171). We among the nations receive blessings because of Israel, not because we become Israel. Bock also states:
Thus, redemption involves both political and spiritual elements, nationalistic themes (Luke 1:71, 74) and the offer of forgiveness (1:77-78).
-ibid, pg 171
Redemption for Israel is not just spiritual, it’s national and physical. If Israel is obedient to God, Messiah will place Israel at the head of the nations and take up his Throne in Jerusalem. However, there is a problem. Bock does not cast the Gentiles as the primary roadblock to God’s restoration of Israel, but instead declares:
The warning to the nation is that if she rejects God’s message, then blessing may not come to her but may go to the Gentiles. Israel’s story has an obstacle, her own rejecting heart. The question is whether that obstacle is permanent or not.
-ibid, pg 172, citing Luke 4:16-30
Traditional Christian supersessionism would say that the obstacle was permanent and the blessings forever left Israel and were transferred to the (Gentile) church. However, since the blessings promised to Abraham only come to the nations by way of Israel, if Israel were permanently eliminated what would happen to us? By definition, any roadblock confronting Israel can only be temporary, just as the Old Testament (Tanakh) record presents how God only turned away from his people Israel “momentarily,” turning immediately back when they humbled their hearts and turned to their God.
Luke 21:24 pictures a turnaround in Israel’s fate. Near the end of the eschatological discourse, Luke describes Jerusalem being trodden down for a time and refers to this period as “the times of the Gentiles.” It refers to a period of Gentile domination, while alluding to a subsequent hope for Israel.
…this view of Israel’s judgment now but vindication later suggests what Paul also contents in Romans 11:25-26: Israel has a future, grafted back in when the fullness of the Gentiles leads her to respond. These chapters certainly have ethnic Israel in view, not any concept of a spiritual Israel. Romans 9-11 develops the temporary period of judgment noted in Luke 13:34-35.
-ibid, pg 173
I should say at this point that Bock extensively cites scripture to support his statements. To restrict the length of this blog post (and I’ve already had to split it into two parts), I am editing out most of his references, so I encourage you to read his chapter in full to get all of the corroborating details.
In covering Acts, Bock deliberately omits Acts 15 and presents several other key areas. Using Acts 1:4-7, Bock establishes the “promise of the Father” which leads the disciples of Jesus to anticipate that the kingdom of Heaven is at hand and that Messiah, prior to (or instead of) the ascension, will restore Israel nationally and spiritually. He does no such thing, but not because the desire is inappropriate. It simply isn’t time yet. However in Acts 3:18-21, Bock shows us that Peter is completely aware that the “times of refreshing” refer to future “refreshment”, which promises the messianic age of salvation as foretold by the Prophets.
But what’s important for we Gentiles to note, is his treatment of Acts 10-11:
In the two passages involving Cornelius in Acts 10-11, the Spirit’s coming shows that Gentiles are equal to Jews in blessing, so that circumcision is not required of Gentiles. The Spirit occupying uncircumcised Gentiles shows they are already cleansed and sacred. The new era’s sign comes to Gentiles as Gentiles. There is no need for them to become Jews. Israel’s story has finally come to bless the nations.
-ibid, pp 175-6
Notice that the nations (Gentiles) did not have to actually become Israel, either by replacing them or joining them as Jews (or pseudo-Jews). We are blessed within one ekklesia made up of Israel (Jews) and the nations (Gentile believers).
As I mentioned before, Bock omits the most critical part of Acts for Gentile inclusion. Bauckham picks that theme up in the following chapter, which you’ll read, along with how we Gentile Christians fulfill the words of the Prophet Amos, in Part 2 of this meditation.