Paul’s letter to the Romans offers us a vision and model for Jewish-Gentile reconciliation. This is because Paul deals with the division between Jesus-believing Jews and Gentiles in his own day. Though Gentile believers were probably a majority in the church in Rome, they were theologically marginalized. For most of history that situation has been reversed, yet part of Romans addresses in advance even that problem.
“Chapter 17: Interdependence and Mutual Blessing in the Church” (pg 187)
Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations
In some ways, the problem briefly defined by Dr. Keener is one that hovers around the fringes of the Christian Hebrew Roots movement today. For the better part of two weeks, I’ve been writing a series of “mini-reviews” on the different chapters of Rudolph’s and Willitts’ book which address interrelated themes within larger Messianic Judaism. They have been received positively and even enthusiastically by most of my vocal readers but a few have perceived the information in a negative light. Accusations of inequality and even racism between Jews and Gentiles have been raised periodically, and I believe part of the underlying problem is a covert or even unconscious fear among these Gentile disciples of Jesus that Messianic Judaism seeks to “theologically marginalize” non-Jewish participants in the Messianic Jewish movement, which spills over into Hebrew Roots, since many of those who are involved also identify themselves as “Messianic Judaism.”
Is the Messianic Jewish movement seeking to marginalize and even to eliminate the Gentile Christian (Hebrew Roots) believers from their ranks and from coveted access to the Torah mitzvot? A casual observer (or one with a specific bias) might say “yes,” but let’s consider what we can learn from different analyses of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
In addition to Keener, Dr. William Campbell and Dr. Scott Hafemann also present their viewpoints on Romans to support the concept of interdependence between believing Jews and Gentiles. The ekklesia doesn’t function correctly and perhaps doesn’t even exist at all without the co-inhabitance and cooperation of both Jews and Gentiles in the body of Messiah. Perhaps that’s why, over the past two-thousand years or so, we haven’t been doing so well in certain areas, because Christianity historically has marginalized Jews theologically (and in just about every other way). It’s time to restore the balance.
Campbell, in “Chapter 18: The Relationship between Israel and the Church”, believes that Paul addressed his Roman letter only to the Gentiles and was speaking about Jews but not to Jews, which seems to be a minority opinion. Keener, on the other hand, presents the main focus of Paul’s letter as being on both Jews and Gentiles:
Although scholars have offered other reasonable proposals, the most widely accepted background for Paul’s letter to believers in Rome involves disagreement between Jesus-believing Jews and Gentiles regarding Jewish customs.
-Keener, pg 187
Apparently, when the Jewish population in the Messianic community in Rome began to dwindle, thanks to the emperor Claudius expelling some or most of the Jews (Acts 18:2), Gentiles began neglecting some or all of the Jewish religious customs they had been taught in relation to the worship of the God of Israel. This rather begs the question of just how much Torah did the Gentiles keep in those days, but does confirm that, for the most part, Gentiles weren’t very driven to Torah observance in the manner of their Jewish mentors (Acts 15:30-31).
For Keener, the primary message of Paul to the Jews and Gentiles in Rome was unity:
Unity was a frequent topic of exhortation in antiquity, and it is central to Paul’s plea for Jewish-Gentile reconciliation in Romans. This is clear and not least because he climaxes his larger argument by inviting unity (Romans 15:5-6) and inviting believers to welcome each other (Romans 15:7). He underscores this point by showing from Scripture that God’s plan includes faithful Gentiles (Romans 15:8-12). The letter’s final exhortation includes a warning against those who sow division (Romans 16:17).
-ibid, pg 188
Relative to interdependence, Keener stresses that the Gentiles have a special role to play in relation to Israel to “provoke jealousy” because of the temporary state of Israel’s non-acceptance of the Gospels.
In Romans 11, however, we learn another divine strategy in Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. Gentiles received mercy through Israel’s failure to embrace the gospel; now Gentiles would become a divine vehicle of bringing Jewish people to Christ. What did this reversal involve? Scripture promised that God would restore and exalt his people in the time of their ultimate repentance (e.g., Amos 9:7-15; Hosea 14:4-7).
They (Gentiles) would in turn help the Jewish people by provoking repentance.
-ibid, pp 190-1
Keener also emphasizes what he is not saying:
I am also not urging all Gentile Christians to join Messianic Jewish congregations. First, they would numerically overwhelm those congregations and their cultural identity. Second, Paul is clear that while Gentile believers in Jesus are spiritual proselytes to Judaism, they are responsible only for the moral heart of the law and not for Israel-distinctive elements.
-ibid, pg 191
(It should be noted that, at least in the United States, all of the Messianic Jewish congregations of which I’m aware, do have a majority membership of Gentiles, but are still designed and administrated as a Jewish religious and community space)
There’s a sort of balancing act involved in Gentiles pursuing their (our) mission of provoking Jewish people to repentance and not overly involving ourselves in Jewish communities to the point of overwriting Jewish identity. Also, Keener says that by over-emphasizing Gentile presence within the Messianic Jewish community for the sake of Jewish repentance, we would likely inhibit part of the Messianic Jewish mission, which is to act as a bridge into the larger Jewish world community.
Messianic Jews, in Keener’s view, depend on their Gentile counterparts to provide resources for the support of the Messianic Jewish community. This isn’t always by sending donations, as Paul did by taking up a collection among the Gentiles to carry to Jerusalem (although it can be), but to, in a larger sense, continue to acknowledge our kinship to our Jewish brothers in Messiah, and even humble ourselves by remembering that salvation comes from the Jews (John 4:22) and that “the people whose heritage we share and from whom our faith springs (Romans 9:4-5), may help us surmount the past barriers of Gentile Christian anti-Semitism.” (idid, pg 193)
But while Keener addressed primarily how the Jews depend on the Gentile believers, Campbell, in Chapter 18, takes a different approach.
Their gentile arrogance is based on mistaken assumptions, and Paul gives no allowance to such misunderstandings of God’s purpose according to election (Romans 9:11). It is no accident that in Romans Paul stresses the order of priority, “to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile” (Romans 2:10 KJV; cf. 1:16). This points to the identity of gentile Christ-followers not as an independent entity, but as interdependent on the call and identity of Israel, to whom as Ephesians 2:13 asserts they “have been brought near.” As Ian Rock asserts, “to affirm the lordship of Christ is to simultaneously recognize the preference of Israel. But to recognize the primacy of Israel is also to accept the importance of the Jews.
Campbell, pp 202-3
The flow of dependence is reversed. In addition to Jews depending on Gentiles to support their repentance and uphold their identity, it is the Gentiles who, without the Jews, are also without the promises, and thus have no independent connection to salvation or covenant with God. The covenants are through Israel and we Gentiles are able to enjoy the blessings only because of Israel.
They (Gentiles) could not really share if they had taken over Israel’s inheritance, as they would then be the sole inheritors. So Paul reminds the gentile Christ-followers, “Do not boast over the branches…remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you” (Romans 11:18 RSV).
-ibid, pg 203
Campbell concludes his chapter with an illuminating chronological construction of Romans 15:9b-13 which seems to say it all.
Because David’s past vindication establishes God’s promise to David’s seed (v.9b), therefore the Gentiles should not give up hope, but learn from the experience of disobedient Israel to rejoice in God alone (in the midst of the false security that comes from the nations’ current reign in the world) (v. 10);
specifically, the Gentiles should not give up hope, but learn from the experience of the faithful remnant to praise God for his truthfulness and mercy (in the midst of the adversity that comes from being part of God’s elect in the world) (v. 11),
because the future vindication of David’s seed in fulfillment of God’s promise is the hope of the nations (v. 12).
-ibid, pg 212
In “Chapter 19: The Redemption of Israel for the Sake of the Gentiles,” Dr. Hafemann returns to the Gentile’s dependence on Jewish Israel.
As Paul argues in Romans 15:7-13, God’s commitment to Israel for the sake of the nations forms the bedrock of the Church’s hope. Viewed from this perspective, Messianic Judaism reminds us not only of God’s faithfulness, demonstrated in Israel’s history, and of his grace, now magnified in the Messiah, but also of his promises for the future of his people, to be fulfilled in the final redemption of Jews and Gentiles.
-Hafemann, pg 206
So we see that God has been historically faithful to Israel for her own sake, but also for the sake of the Gentiles who will be saved through His promises to Israel. Again, we see that without Israel, the Gentile believers have no leg to stand on, so to speak, and that any covenant connection we have with God through Messiah vanishes like a morning mist under the summer sun if we dispense with Israel and the Jewish people. Not only must Israel continue but it must continue as the head of the nations as a wholly Jewish nation, unique and distinct from the people of the nations, we Gentiles, who need them for our hope in salvation.
The linkage is through Abraham, as I’m sure you realize by now:
Since God is the God of both Jews and Gentiles, both the “circumcised” and the “uncircumcised” will be justified “through [the] same faith” (3:29-30), the faith of Abraham, for “he is the father of us all” (4:16).
By Gentiles desiring to supersede the Jews in the promises or to fuse our identity with theirs, creating a single Israel and eliminating our identity as the people of the nations called by God’s Name, we are disconnecting ourselves from the very salvation that we desire to claim only for ourselves. There is a wonderful eschatological promise for the Christian church, but only if there is a wonderful eschatological promise for the future of Israel as well.
Paul’s chain of Scripture will therefore focus on the purpose of Israel’s redemptive history with regard to the Gentiles, rather than referring merely in a general sense to the inclusion of Jews and Gentiles within the church. The Gentiles are to glorify God for what he has promised to do for Israel (Romans 15:9a) since the future redemption of the nations, including the resurrection from the dead and redemption of the world (cf. Romans 5:17; 8:19-22, 31-39), is tied to the rescue of Israel (Romans 5:18; cf. 11:15). The current experience of Jews and Gentiles as distinct but equal identities within the Church therefore takes on significance precisely because it is a foretaste of the consummation yet to come for both Israel and the nations.
-ibid, pp 207-8
This is something that Boaz Michael of First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) was trying to say during last year’s Sukkot conference. I wrote about it in a series of blog posts, including Redeeming the Heart of Israel, Part 1 and Part 2, but I was never clear on how this interdependence was rooted in scripture until this time. I see now, more clearly than ever, that any form of supersessionism damages not only Israel, but the hope of the nations for salvation and redemption, since our hope only comes from the Jews.
When the Church tries to replace Israel in the covenant promises or mistakenly chooses to believe they (we) are Israel, it is like a man who decides to cut off his legs in order to stand taller and straighter. Instead, he only causes great pain and permanently cripples himself.
It is said that in ancient days during Sukkot, Israel offered sacrifices at the Temple for the sake of the nations to atone for their (our) sins. When the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, they also stopped those sacrifices and thus the atonement Israel provided for the nations of the world. Basically, the Romans cut off their own legs when they destroyed the Temple, ravaged Jerusalem, and scattered the vast majority of the Jewish people to the four corners of the earth.
As Christians, when we dismiss Israel from the covenants and in one way or another, try to take their place, we are doing exactly the same thing. As it takes two healthy legs to support the body of a man, so the ekklesia requires the one “leg” of Messianic Judaism and the other “leg” of Gentile Christians. If we cut off the Jewish leg or if we try to fuse the Gentile leg and the Jewish leg into a single mutilated limb, the best the body can do is to hop around impotently. More likely, the ekklesia will just fall down and break apart.
We depend on each other, but we can only support the body of Christ by being two limbs of the body standing side by side, walking together.