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Volume 7, Issue 4: Thema

Salvation is from the Jews

Douglas Jones

Perhaps modern evangelicalism resembles that befuddled archaelogist, Dr. Howard Carson, in the parody, Motel of the Mysteries. In a 4022 A.D. archaelogical expedition, Howard stumbles into an encrusted, though quite standard, 1985 motel. Being cut off from the context of our time, Howard completely misunderstands the functions of some very mundane objects - an ice bucket, a TV remote control, a toilet seat - misdescribing them as sublime and esoteric artifacts of bygone religious practices. He describes a typical telephone sitting beside a lamp as a

highly complex percussion instrument . . . near the statue of WATT. . . . The Bell System was played by holding one half of the instrument in each hand and banging them together in some pre-established rhythmic pattern. The impact would cause a small bell inside the larger of the two pieces to ring. 1

And so on, misinterpreting everything with academic naivete. Howard's missteps are rather inconsequential, but when we in the modern evangelical church mirror such foibles by overlooking the deep Jewishness of Christianity, we can paralyze generations of believers.

So many of the contemporary issues that plague local churches and national theological currents will be resolved more easily when we rediscover our more scriptural and natural Hebraic roots. The attitudes that have been undermining evangelicalism for over a century have been very unJewish - individualism, anti-historicalism, egalitarianism, retreatism in the church, sacred/secular compartmentalizations, impotence of families, law/gospel dichotomies, introspectionism, etc.
Much of the Protestant Reformation recognized the dangers of these attitudes that so characterized their anabaptist opponents. While the Reformed were calling the Church back to its Jewish, New Covenant roots, the anabaptists were heading in the other direction at a feverish pace. Well, now we see it more clearly. In the long run, the anabaptists have won the Reformation. Their rather unJewish assumptions have taken the day in contemporary evangelicalism.

Jewish Details

Seeing beyond our own horizons isn't impossible as some suggest, but it does take effort. As we learn more about the Jewish context of the first century, we'll understand more and more of Scripture. For example, Sunday school taught us of that unique little episode where Christ welcomes the children and blesses them. In its Jewish context, we learn that this was a standard rabbinic practice of the time. Every year, parents would bring their children to the rabbi for a special blessing, and Christ followed suit, revealing not only His love for children but also revealing their place as part of the covenant community. Similarly, casting lots for another apostle looks odd from our angle, but less so when we understand that such lot casting was a regular part of the Jewish Temple work. Priests were assigned various duties, on a regular basis, by means of lots.
In the synagogue, the religious leader who aided and protected the reading of Scripture by peering over the shoulder of the scroll reader was known, not so creatively, as the "overseer", - a term carried over for leadership in the Christian Church (Acts 20:28), as were so many other titles. Additionally, Paul makes passing reference to the baptism of the dead (1 Cor.15:29), and instead of sitting dumbfounded before the triumphant glare of Mormon missionaries, we should learn the Jewish context and point them to the Old Covenant ceremonial baptisms for the dead (Num.19:11-22). 2
The phenomena of tongues has a similarly Jewish context. For centuries, God had threatened the Jews with oppression from foreigners babbling alien tongues as a sign of His displeasure (Deut.28:49; Jer.5:15). Paul reminds us of this fearful curse of tongues for apostate Jews (1 Cor.14:21), though our charismatic friends carry on, often quite oblivious to the Jewish context. And the book of Revelation will forever dumbfound us until we read it with first-century, Jewish eyes. The entire book is so permeated with symbols taken directly out of the Old Testament, that our misunderstandings of this glorious book reveal how far we often are from recognizing the Jewish framework of our faith.
Unlike modern Christians who unthinkingly sever Judaism and Christianity, first-century Christians were so Jewish in their understanding of the faith that they wrangled over whether Gentiles could even be admitted to Christianity! The apostles, acting like the Jews they were, called a typically Hebraic council (Acts 15), a sanhedrin, to judicially settle the matter once and for all. One commentator notes,

Because Judaism and Christianity have long been separate entities, we tend to read the division between the two faiths back to the very beginnings of the Christian church. Yet the truth is that the majority of the first generation of Christians regarded themselves as faithful Jews, and saw their faith in Jesus as the fulfilment of Judaism. 3

Jewish Categories

The Jewishness of Christianity is not just handy in deciphering New Testament details. The heart and soul of the Christian faith is thoroughly Jewish.
Christianity self-consciously saw itself as the continuing outgrowth, the fulfillment, of true Judaism. As such, Christianity didn't start in the first century but long before with King David, Moses, Abraham, and ultimately the first man, Adam. Everything in older Judaism was building up and pointing to the work of Jesus Christ.
When Mary, Jesus' mother, learned that she was to give birth to the promised Messiah, she didn't think that this would be some new, unconnected event, beginning only in the first century A.D. No, she sang of God's ancient promises to Abraham and Israel: "He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to His seed forever" (Lk. 1:54,55; Lk. 1:68-74). And Christ's apostles declared the message that "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us. . . that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus. . . And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:13,14,29; Acts 3:20-26). The New Covenant writers even explained that the New Covenant gospel was preached to the Old Covenant saints! The writer of Hebrews wrote quite explicitly of Moses' time saying, "the gospel was preached to us as well a to them" (Heb. 4:2). Paul, too, declared that God "preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, 'In you all the nations shall be blessed'" (Gal.3:8). That's the Christian gospel, ancient and glorious and Jewish.
So when we start thinking about Christianity, we have to understand its very Jewish roots. We should assume that Christianity ought to look and sound like Judaism except when it explicitly claims to change something. We should expect that the Scriptures, institutions, basic principles, laws, meditations, family life, etc. of Judaism would carry over into Christianity, unless Christ authoritatively changed a practice. For example, since Christ is the reality to which all the ancient Judaic animal sacrifices were but a picture, a foreshadow, we no longer need the ineffective pictures. Thus, animal sacrifices have ceased, having been fulfilled by the true sacrifice, Christ Himself.
One of the most central notions of Christianity that developed out of Judaism is the notion of a covenant. We don't often hear talk of covenants in our day, but we really can't understand the heights and depths and riches of Christianity if we don't have a good grasp of a covenant. To start, a covenant is a special kind of relationship between persons. People can be related by friendship, employment contracts, geographical location, citizenship, etc., but a covenant ties persons together in a bond of mutual promise that involves conditions of blessing and cursing.
A covenant is so important in grasping basic Christianity because the Bible makes clear that this is the sort of relationship that God chose to have with humans. He could have chosen another kind of relationship, like a labor contract, but He didn't. He chose to bind Himself to us by a covenant. A covenant is intended to establish a very intimate, merciful, and gracious relationship. This special covenantal bond that God instituted between humans and Himself is the core around which the history of the world develops. We can't properly understand family life or church government or civil activities or Scripture itself if we are ignorant of the workings of covenants.
Right at the core of this covenantal gospel lies a very Hebraic notion of justification. Unlike Roman and Eastern Catholicisms which are caught up into a Platonic notion of justification,the Reformers correctly grasped the Jewishness of justification. Rome and the East are simply not ancient enough.
The Bible is full of the language of justification, and these many descriptions tell us that justification is what takes place in a courtroom. For example, God declared in His law that the purpose of a good judge is to "justify the righteous and condemn the wicked" (Deut. 25:1). Such a judge doesn't make a person clean or inwardly holy; his justification of the accused is an authoritative legal judgment or declaration - "Not guilty!" The threat of judicial condemnation no longer hangs over that person; he is forgiven. This is part of what God has done through Christ. He has justified authoritatively removed His condemnation from His people.
But God cannot just overlook our flagrant and deep rebellion and arbitrarily declare us not guilty. That would go contrary to His holy nature. In order to declare us not guilty, He imputed or covenantally attributed His people's sin to their New Covenant representative, Jesus Christ; and in turn, God has imputed or attributed Christ's righteousness to His people - a gracious double imputation! Christ is declared legally guilty for our sin, and we are declared not guilty by His perfect righteousness. As the Scripture explains: "For He [God] made Him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." (2 Cor. 5:21). And on this just basis, God can justify the ungodly, those who have no righteousness of their own.
As David said long ago: "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity" (Ps. 32:1,2). This is the glory of the Christian gospel. And since our salvation is anchored in the perfect and complete work of Christ, and not in ourselves, we can have great assurance that our redemption is unfailing and secure. How wonderful! How Jewish!
When we understand that Christianity is true Judaism, we'll glory in the New Covenant's description of the Christian Church with Jewish titles, such as the "Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16), "Abraham's offspring" (Gal. 3:29), the "twelve tribes" (James 1:1), "the true circumcision" (Phil. 3:3), and "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession" (1 Pet.2:9; Ex. 19:6).
This is all just scratching the surface of the Jewish depths of our faith. Jewishness pervades the doctrines of Lordship, sovereignty, antithesis, sacraments, church government, eschatology, sola scriptura, sola fidei, sola gratia, and more. As Christ taught, "father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad" (Jn. 8:56). After all, salvation is from the Jews (Jn. 4:22).

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