St. Paul is still relevant today, and not just in the general sense.
Paul is relevant today in what has become something almost like historical déjà vu. When Paul began traveling across Palestine and then Asia Minor and Europe, the Church was quickly characterized by Gentile converts filling pew space next to their Jewish brethren. Soon enough, congregations sprang up and were dominated by non-Jewish Christians. The shift in ethnic identity from Jew to Gentile created no small amount of consternation among both parties and Paul filled his epistles with strong reminders that the Body of Christ is unified, not by racial or ethnic purity, but because it is fundamentally a new creation and is made up of men and women who are, at their core, people transformed by a work of grace.
“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:26—29)
To the heterogenous churches in America these Pauline pronouncements sometimes seem axiomatically obvious. However, at the time they were penned (and today, upon deeper reflection) they were revolutionary. The Jewish religion had, for ages, been defined primarily in terms of a physical identity that corresponded with a spiritual one. A Jew was a circumcised male, or the female progeny of one, who traced his lineage to Abraham. If any non-Jew wanted to be accepted into the community, he had to become Jewish: physically, ethnically, religiously, and culturally. Many Gentiles found this price too high to pay and so remained among the resident aliens who dwelt with the Jews but were never granted equal status.
When Jesus came, and Paul after Him, all of this was changed. Jews and Gentiles were taught, again and again, that Jesus was the reality that all the Jewish laws and traditions pointed towards. That Jesus unified the Jews and Gentiles who put their faith in Him by combining them into one group, one body.
Today, however, the Church in Israel is experiencing the same ethnic and cultural dynamics that existed 2,000 years ago. The Church there is made up of Jew and non-Jew; however, the Jews still hold the majority. While some are happy (more or less) to accommodate their non-Jewish brothers and sisters, the Messianic congregations are swelled with Jews who see themselves as religiously superior to non-Jews. After all, the Messianic Jews speak Hebrew, practice the ethno-religious feasts and fasts described in the Bible, and are less encumbered by historic and cultural suppositions and attitudes than their non-Jewish counterparts.
Messianic Jews, for those who think the label oxymoronic, are those Jews who believe: that Jesus is the Messiah prophesied of in the Law and the Prophets, and—with relative degrees of fervor—that the Jewish traditions, feasts, and fasts continue to be relevant (if not obligatory) to the proper Judeo-Christian life. Among Messianic Jews there also are found those Gentiles (usually from some Christian background) who have been convinced that the Jewish model of life and worship is more Biblically accurate than anything found in the Christian Church.
Messianic congregations in Israel today often refuse to fellowship with Christian congregations on the grounds that those congregations are modeling and promulgating a deficient understanding of Christianity. In a state where Christians of any stripe are a minority, it is particularly vexing that the Messianic Jewish movement, with all its promise of evangelizing Jews in culturally relevant ways, should prove to be so divisive.
The apostle Paul was clear that, whatever cultural or ethnic barriers differences might exist, the Church is a unified group of people who are joined together by the fruit of their faith in Jesus. That such unity should be threatened by people who want to be true to the Bible is a great disappointment and a grave danger to the health and continued growth of the Church in Israel.
“There is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11)
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My trip to Israel this summer brought to light a number of nuances in the question of Israel and her relationships with the Palestinians, the Arab nations, and the West, not least of which is the role of the Church (American and Israeli) in the future of the Middle East. I look forward to sharing some of those issues with you over the next few days
Check out other thoughts on my summer trip to Israel.