church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

We continue with our study of Israel in the New Testament, including our numeration of points for ease of discussion.

6. Though the Jewish Christians (the followers of “the Way” as they were known) were initially regarded as fellow Jews by the mass of their fellow countrymen (including such groups as the Pharisees), disagreement over basic questions soon led to a parting of the ways and taking divergent trajectories. It was not simply a disagreement over the (significant!) question of whether or not Jesus was the Messiah and therefore who was the true inheritor of Israel’s name and destiny.  There was also disagreed over the question of the importance of Jewish identity and of the place of the Gentiles.

For mainstream Judaism (and the later Rabbinic Judaism which emerged after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.) Jewish identity was paramount, and with it the insistence on circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws, the classic markers of Jewish identity.  The Messiah’s importance was subordinated to this identity—that is, the Messiah was to establish and strengthen the Jewish state as supreme and thus strengthen Jewish identity.  The Gentiles were to find blessing for themselves either by becoming Jews (i.e. being circumcised) or by submitting to the supremacy of the Messianic Jewish state.

It was otherwise for the followers of the Way, especially after the triumph of St. Paul’s vision at the Council of Jerusalem held in ca. 49 A.D. and described in Acts 15.  For the Christians, Jewish national identity (i.e. circumcision) was utterly irrelevant to the Kingdom of God.  Indeed, the glorification that God now offered to Israel (and through Israel, to the world) all national identity had been utterly transcended.  Thus “in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek”.  In Christ God “has made the two [groups, Jew and Gentile] into one new man” (Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 2:15).  For the Christians, making national Jewish identity paramount involved denying what God had accomplished in the Messiah.  The split (and the theological hostility) between Jew and Christian had therefore become inevitable given the strongly-held views of each.

Such a view clashed spectacularly with that of the rest of Judaism—especially after the trauma of 70 A.D., in which Jewish nationalism played such a large part.  It led both sides increasingly to the view that the Way was not just another Jewish sect (like that of the Pharisees), but something else entirely.  For the Jews, the Way became a kind of pagan threat to the integrity of Israel, a heresy which threatened the very existence of Israel as the Chosen People.  For the Christians, Judaism became a form of apostasy, a failure to recognize and seize the work that God had accomplished for them in the Messiah.  In the words of Paul, those who accepted circumcision as essential to their salvation had thereby been “severed from Christ” and “fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4).  Decades later, St. Ignatius of Antioch would warn Christians of the danger of “Judaizing” (e.g. Magnesians 8-10, Philadelphians 6).

7. As said above, such tensions were increased after the events of 70 A.D. and 132 A.D. which saw the effective extinction of the Jewish state by the Romans.  This tension was exacerbated by the interpretation placed upon the destruction of the Temple by the Christians.

Referring to the words of Jesus just prior to His death, the Christians regarded the destruction of the temple as divine judgment upon Jerusalem and the generation that rejected Jesus for their persistent opposition to His movement in the decades following.  Sitting on Mount Olivet, Jesus predicted the Temple’s destruction, saying that one stone would not be left upon another.  In the (paraphrased) reportage of Luke in Luke 21:23-24, Jesus said, “There will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people, and they will fall by the edge of the sword and will be led captive into all the nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled” [i.e. until the end of the age].

Jesus referred to this destruction explicitly as divine judgment upon them for rejecting Him:  “When Jesus approached, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace!  But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you when your enemies will throw up a bank before you, and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation’” (Luke19:41f).  Such a Christian interpretation could not fail to increase the tension:  not only had the followers of Jesus fled the Holy City prior to the final Roman siege (see Luke 20:20-22) and had not fought to save the city, they even declared that the city fell because of its earlier persistent rejection of Jesus!

8. Given the hostility of those who rejected Jesus as the Messiah and who denounced His followers as deluded apostates and worked to destroy the movement (such as those who drove Paul out of town and sought to kill him (see Acts 13: 50, 17:1f, 21:27f, 25:3), it was natural that Paul should in turn denounce those men.  To those the Gentile Christians in Thessalonica who were undergoing persecution from their fellow-Gentiles Paul wrote, “You became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured he same suffering at the hands of our own countrymen even as they did from the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out; they are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they may might be saved, with the result that they always fill up the measure of their sins” (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).

It is important to recognize that this divine wrath poured out was not directed toward every Jew—indeed, the earliest leadership of the Church itself, including the apostles, was Jewish.  The issue was not Jewish race, but Jewish persecution of the Church.  Jews who did not share this white-hot hostility to their Christian neighbours were not the subject of such denunciations.  It is illegitimate to apply these verses, as has too often been done, to all Jews everywhere and throughout the centuries.  The focus of these verses is solely upon the Jews of the early centuries who persecuted the Church.

This insight can hardly be stressed enough, for the application of such apostolic denunciations to all Jews everywhere at all times lies at the heart of much of the later anti-Semitism.  In the same way, the blame for the crucifixion of Christ lies solely with those Jews of the Sanhedrin and of Jerusalem at that time who called for the crucifixion of Jesus (see Matthew 27:22-25), not on all Jews everywhere by virtue of their being Jewish.

9. Finally we note that the Church’s role in the world and its destiny is irrevocably linked with the rest of Israel, the Jews who do not yet believe in Jesus as the Messiah.   For all the tensions, mutual hostility, and mutual denunciations between the Church and the Jews who rejected the Messiahship of Jesus, it was understood that God continued to call all those Jews home to Christ so that “Israel according to the flesh” had a special place in the providential purposes of God.

This did not mean that salvation could be found outside of Christ.  The entire message of the Bible, Old Testament as well as New Testament, was that racial connection with Abraham alone did not provide salvation, but that faith and obedience to God were required (see Matthew 3:8-9).  God has one chosen people—Israel—not two, and Jews who did not believe in the Messiah forfeited their place in His true and glorified Israel.  But their Jewish identity meant that they retained some connection with it.  That is, Gentiles would find salvation in Israel by completely renouncing their former pagan past; Jews would find salvation by more fully embracing their ancestral inheritance.  A Jewish Christian thus experienced completion and fulfillment of his past in a way that a Gentile Christian never could.  Gentiles were grafted onto the covenantal vine as alien and wild branches; believing Jews on the other hand were grafted in as the natural branches, finding in the vine their own proper place (Romans 11:17-24).

That is why St. Paul could speak of the Gospel being offered “to the Jew first” and of Christ becoming a servant to the Jews on behalf of God’s faithfulness to confirm the promises given to their fathers (Romans 1:16, 15:8).  That is also why St. Paul could write that although unbelieving Jews, from the standpoint of the Gospel, were God’s “enemies”, they were also from the standpoint of God’s covenantal choice “beloved for the sake of the fathers” since “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28-29).

Moreover, St. Paul seems to teach that Israel according to the flesh, the mass of unbelieving Jews, will eventually return to Christ before the Second Coming.  Though a detailed exegesis of Romans 11 is beyond the scope of even this lengthy blog piece, we offer the following.

At the conclusion of a long discussion on the unbelief of most of the Jews and the significance of their rejection of Christ in the purposes of God, Paul seems to conclude on a final hopeful note.  In Romans 11:25f, Paul writes, “For I do not want you, brothers, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in, and thus all Israel will be saved”.  That is, before the end of the age, after the full number of Gentiles has come in, the hardening that afflicted the larger part of Israel will be lifted.  It is “thus”, in this way (Greek outos; compare its use in Matthew 1:18) that all Israel will be saved—by a part of the Jewish nation being hardened until the time when all the Gentiles have come in. Paul had earlier hinted at this partial hardening being temporary when he spoke not only of Israel’s “transgression” and “failure” (i.e. their rejection of Christ), but of their final “fulness” and fulfillment and their “acceptance” (verses 12, 15) as they return to faith in Christ.

We may then expect (many exegetes believe) a large-scale conversion to Christ on the part of the Jews before the End.  The Jews still remain inextricably linked to God’s purposes.  Their final acceptance by God through their welcoming of the Gospel at the time of the end will mean life from dead for all the world (verse 15).  This is a part of the ongoing spiritual symbiosis between Christian Gentile and unbelieving Jew:  just as the pagan Gentiles were once disobedient to God but were shown mercy because of Jewish disobedience, so the disobedient Jews will be shown mercy once they convert after they see the mercy shown to the Gentiles (Romans 11:30-31).  Jew and Christian are locked together in the providence of God.

Judaism is therefore not simply another religion; Christians are linked to them in a way that they are not linked to those in any other religion.  Christian and Jew remain inextricably joined in the providential purposes of God.  Christians, as the true Israel, hold their faith as a trust for their Jewish brethren, looking for the day when their unity in Christ may be finally restored.  The Jewish people therefore have a special place in the Christian heart, and in the Christian evangelistic outreach. We offer the Gospel to all men, for Christ died for all.  But our hearts should beat a little faster when we offer the Gospel to our Jewish friends, for they are beloved for the sake of the fathers.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.