This article was written to accompany the ‘The Mission of God and the Story of the Old Testament’ hangout.
- How much thought do you give to issues of ethnicity and culture when you consider your salvation?
A Controversial Idea
Many of us reading these notes will be Christians with no Jewish background at all, and we easily accept the idea that we are loved by God and accepted solely because of Jesus, with no reference to our cultural or ethnic heritage. However, the idea that non-Jews could become part of God’s people without first becoming Jews was highly controversial for the first Christians, and many of the struggled to understand or believe it. In fact, a fair amount of the New Testament is written to address this exact subject. In this article, we will see why this required such a big change in thinking, and how it has always been God’s intention to have an ethnically and culturally diverse people as his own.
Right from the beginning of the Old Testament, we see that God wants people to know him and to be his people. This comes clearly into focus with the birth of the nation of Israel, the group of people about whom the whole of the Old Testament is concerned. Despite rarely being internationally significant or spiritually astute, Israel was the nation that God had chosen to be his own special people. It started when God promised Abraham that his descendants would become ‘a great nation,’ living under the blessing of God (Genesis 12:2). As they became more numerous in Egypt, it appeared that God had forgotten them as they languished in slavery for 400 years. However, when God spoke to Moses he assured him, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt…” (Exodus 3:7), and miraculously freed the people. At Mount Sinai, God then committed himself to them with a covenant, and later declared, “I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.” (Leviticus 26:12) As God’s people, they are commanded to live holy lives and to be different from the nations around them.
However, being part of Israel was never just about being part of a certain ancestral group. Right from the start, Israel was an ethnically mixed people; whilst most Israelites could trace their family tree all the way back to one of the twelve sons of Jacob, whose descendants became the twelve tribes of Israel, many others had very different ancestors. Exodus 12:38 tells us that, “a mixed multitude also went up with them” (Exodus 12:38), including Egyptians and other nationalities who were convinced of the superiority of Israel’s God. Many of the laws given to Moses made explicit comments and provisions concerning the “foreigners living amongst you” (e.g. Leviticus 16:29) – rather unhelpfully translated in some versions as ‘aliens’! Moses’ own wife was a Midianite. During the period of the judges, we find Israel unwisely mixing with the local population, and by the time of David and Solomon, we find many non-Hebrews living as part of the nation of Israel, such as Doeg the Edomite, Uriah the Hittite, and all the Gibeonites allowed to join under Joshua.
The International God
Most people living in the time of the Old Testament believed that there were many gods, each with their own particular sphere of influence. There were gods for specific places, gods supervising various skills and crafts, gods in charge of different parts of the world and the environment, and there were gods who ruled over their own groups of people. The revolutionary idea we find in the Old Testament, however, is that there is in reality just one God: Yahweh, the God of Israel. He was not simply a local tribal deity competing with other gods for power and prestige, but rather he alone ruled the whole world and his influence went far beyond the borders of the Promised Land. All people everywhere were expected to relate to him as God, not just the Israelites. For example, Psalm 47 begins, “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy! For the Lord, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth.” (Psalm 47:1-2) This would fit nicely with God’s intention to bless ‘all peoples of the earth’ through Abraham’s offspring.
However, for much of Israel’s history, the surrounding nations showed little inclination to trade in their own gods in order to joyfully worship the God of Israel. In fact, most of the time they were a real problem for the Israelites: They were either enemies, fighting with and often defeating them; or they were a source of temptation, causing God’s people to worship false gods and abandon his call of living holy lives. Often, Israel was ruled over and oppressed by the superpowers of the day, such as Egypt or Assyria. As a result, Israel became increasingly wary of other nations, and came to view God’s international rule in terms of Israel’s military victory over all her enemies. Psalm 2 expresses well this sense of Israel being besieged by hostile nations. “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed.” (Psalm 2:1-2) Yet God’s people are secure, trusting in God’s worldwide reign through the coming Messiah (‘Anointed’). “I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” (Psalm 2:8-9)
But God’s international reign was not really about destroying or crushing the other nations, but rather about bringing them in to enjoy the blessing of knowing him. After all, the covenant with Abraham had promised that, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3) Right at the start, the covenant with Abraham could be extended to include the one “who is not of your offspring” (Genesis 17:12). Israel was called to be “a light for the nations [or Gentiles], that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6). ‘The Gentiles’ was a catch-all phrase for ‘everybody else apart from the Jews’. Far from selfishly enjoying God’s blessing for themselves, God’s people were called to be an example to all the other nations of what life lived with the true God is like. They were to invite everybody into fellowship with God, and live lives that reflected that fellowship.
The book of Isaiah is full of imagery describing how the other nations, Israel’s enemies, are to be caught up in God’s plan of salvation and join alongside Israel as part of God’s people. Isaiah 2:2-3 pictures people from every nation coming to Jerusalem to meet God and learn to follow him, “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:2-3)
In Isaiah, the two world superpowers of Isaiah’s day (8th century BC) come together to worship Israel’s God and become part of his people. “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.’” (Isaiah 19:23-25) Both Egypt and Assyria were correctly perceived as Israel’s enemies, threatening to overrun the tiny micro-state sandwiched between their two empires. Yet here they are described with intimate terms of fellowship with God normally reserved exclusively for Israel.
In chapter 49, he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
Foreigners are specifically told in Isaiah 56:3-8 that they will not be excluded from amongst God’s people and are promised, “These I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7)
THINK IT THROUGH
Read Psalm 67.
- How does this Psalm speak of God’s worldwide reign?
- How does the psalmist expect other nations to react to God’s global reign?
Light Under a Bowl
Israel studiously avoided blessing anyone for much of their history. If they had any light to shine to those around them, they usually kept it well hidden. For centuries, like a sponge they had soaked up the ungodly beliefs and practices of their neighbours. After the return from exile in Babylon, they were determined never again to compromise and dilute their faith in the one true God. Instead, they developed a bunker mentality: wherever possible they cut off contact with other peoples. Determined to stay holy and unpolluted, they shunned contact with Gentiles, whom they regarded as ‘unclean’.
By Jesus’ day, this concept of gentile contamination was so strong that no Jew would willingly have any contact with a gentile for fear of becoming unclean themselves. They were regarded as ‘dogs’, and the thought of eating with them, or even entering their homes, was repulsive to the Jews. Gentiles were explicitly excluded from the temple with signs proclaiming, ‘No foreigner is to go beyond the balustrade and the plaza of the temple zone. Whoever is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his death which will follow’. The occupying Romans were especially resented, and the Jewish hope of the Messiah was understood in purely militaristic terms: The Messiah would be a mighty warrior like King David who would expel the Romans and set up an invincible Jewish nation to rule over their subservient neighbours. Psalm 2 would be literally fulfilled by physical force and violence.
THINK IT THROUGH
- In what ways are you negatively influenced by unbelievers and the culture around you?
- How can you engage meaningfully with people without compromising your Christian beliefs and lifestyle?
God’s plan to rescue his people and include all other nations was indeed accomplished by violence and physical force. But it was violence received, not meted out. Jesus’ rescue mission culminated in his brutal and bloody death on the cross, in our place, for our sins. And the message of the New Testament is that his death reconciles us to God, whether we are Jews or Gentiles. Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah, but he was the Messiah for all nations. As the ultimate personification of Israel, he had come to bring light to the Gentiles and to bless all peoples on earth. In fulfilment of Isaiah 52:15, he would ‘sprinkle many nations’, cleansing them from their sin. In Jesus, the gospel of justification by faith is equally valid for both the Jew and the Gentile. As the Apostle Paul writes, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16)
- How did Jesus defeat his enemies?
- How do you think the military aspects of the Old Testament messianic texts apply to Jesus (if at all)?
Despite the fact that in his three years of ministry on earth, Jesus worked almost exclusively with Jews, he repeatedly dropped hints that his mission had a much broader scope. Matthew’s gospel is in many ways a gospel presenting Jesus as the Jewish Messiah for the whole world. He deliberately includes two gentile women, Rahab the Canaanite prostitute and Ruth from Moab, in Jesus’ genealogy in chapter one. After being amazed by the faith of a Roman Centurion, Jesus declares that “Many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 8:11) In the parable of the vineyard, the wicked tenants representing unrighteous Israel are punished and the vineyard given “to other tenants” (see Matthew 21:41). The centurion and other Romans present at the crucifixion affirm Jesus as “the son of God” (Matthew 27:54), and the gospel ends with the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The word translated ‘nations’ here is from the Greek word ‘ethnos’, which is the same word that is translated as ‘gentile’ elsewhere. Today when we read Jesus’ call to take the gospel to ‘all nations’ we tend to think of overseas mission to foreign countries. But to the original disciples and Matthew’s original Jewish-Christian readers, this command was far more shocking: Jesus is commanding them to take the gospel to ‘all the Gentiles’.
The early church struggled to fully grasp the revolutionary cross-cultural nature of the gospel. Initially, all the Christians were Jews, and the church was seen as a sub-group of Judaism made up of Jews who had come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. Despite spreading quickly amongst the Jews, the message of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah for all the nations had not yet broken out from its Jewish cradle. The apostles had not yet understood the full implications of Jesus’ command to take the gospel to “Jerusalem… all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) God would need to seriously intervene to push the gospel out to the rest of the world, and he would use two very different men to do so.
Eating Unclean Food
As a faithful Jew, the apostle Peter would never have eaten any of the ‘unclean’ food prohibited in the Old Testament law. This would include certain birds, insects, and reptiles as well as seafood, blood, and any pork products. However, whilst praying when hungry one day, Peter had a repeated vision in which God commanded him three times to eat unclean food. Each time Peter refused, and each time was told, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” (Acts 10:15) Just as Peter was trying to understand the meaning of the vision, the Holy Spirit spoke to Peter about some visitors that were about to arrive. “Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” (Acts 10:20) To Peter’s great surprise, the men were Gentiles, and they invited him to come to the house of their master, a Roman Centurion called Cornelius. Peter obediently stepped across the ancient cultural divide separating Jew and Gentile and went with them. “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” (Acts 10:28) Peter then told them the gospel about Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, and they believed, were filled with the Holy Spirit, and subsequently baptized in the name of Jesus. The Jewish Christians with Peter “were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.” (Acts 10:45) The gospel had finally broken out from ethnic Judaism.
The Apostle to the Gentiles
The second man that God used to spread the gospel in the Gentile world was an even more unlikely character. The apostle Paul had been an ultra-strict Pharisee, persecuting Christians as fiercely as he opposed anything that was not Jewish. However, at his conversion, God had chosen him “to carry my name before the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15), and Paul became a hugely successful pioneer, planting churches all over the Roman world made up of both Jews and Gentiles. He played a key part in the council of Jerusalem (see Acts 15), held to address the question of gentile Christians, and whether it was necessary to “circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5) In other words, did they have to convert to Judaism in order to be ‘proper’ Christians? The council realised God’s plan was far bigger than that, and their decision allowed Christianity to spread unhindered throughout the Roman Empire and down through history to people like ourselves in the present day.
THINK IT THROUGH
Read Galatians 3:23-29.
- Why does Paul say that we no longer need the law to supervise us as Christians?
- How do you think the Law of Moses can still help you to live a godly life?
Paul argued consistently throughout his ministry that the full expression of the gospel was Jews and Gentiles united together in Christ. Several of his letters were written specifically to address this issue and to explain Paul’s role as ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ (see Galatians 2:8). In Ephesians, he reminds the ‘uncircumcised’ gentile Christians that before, when they were ‘separate from Christ’, they were, “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ… So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:12-13, 19)
In Romans, Paul reflects on Abraham’s faith coming before his circumcision and concludes that anyone having faith like his is accepted by God regardless of circumcision or ethnic background (see Romans 4:9-12). He quotes Hosea 2:23, describing how Gentiles will be included as God’s people. “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God’.” (Romans 9:25-26) He then finishes with an analogy of Israel as an olive tree, with some branches representing unbelieving Jews being broken off, and other branches representing believing Gentiles grafted in (see Romans 11:16-21). It is a brilliant illustration of the complete organic unity of God’s people, the church, as one ‘tree’, even though they come from different backgrounds as Jews and Gentiles.
The great finale of the Bible is found in the book of Revelation. In chapter 7, we are granted a glimpse into heaven and see “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9) God has finally achieved his plan to gather for himself all sorts of people from all over the world to know and worship him. Israel was always just a seedbed out of which would grow the church, a chrysalis which would metamorphosise into a beautiful butterfly. It was never really just about ‘ethnic Israel’ (or the ‘promised’ land of Canaan), but was always leading up to the worldwide people of God bought from every ethnic, social and religious background living in the whole earth of the incredible New Creation; a renewed cosmos where God is the undisputed Centre, and everything opposed to him is finally defeated. In the poetic description of the New Heavens and the New Earth in the final chapter of the Bible, we are told that ‘the tree of life’ is there “yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2), where once again ‘ethnos’ is used, carrying the meaning ‘Gentiles’ along with ‘nations’. No longer is God’s blessing artificially restricted to a single ethnic group, but the river has burst its banks and flooded the whole of humanity with the grace and mercy of God. What was once just accessible to two special people in the Garden of Eden in the beginning is now available to all God’s people, both Jews and Gentiles, in his glorious renewed Creation.
- In what ways do we need the whole church to effectively shine into a dark world?
- How are you personally seeking to bring light to the people around you?