January 25, 2010

Truly Jewish

“He is not a Jew who is one outwardly.” Romans 2.28

That might be one of the more controversial statements in the Bible! ‘Jewish ethnicity doesn’t actually make one a true Jew’, says Paul. If you walked into your local synagogue and threw these words out for discussion, you might raise quite a dust storm. But Paul means what he says. Of course there is such a thing as Jewish ethnicity. Paul does not deny that. But, more importantly, Paul’s definition of a truly Jewish person is more about spiritual condition than it is about ethnic origin. It is possible to be Jewish, according to Paul, without really being Jewish. It is possible to be an ethnic Jew while living as a spiritual Gentile.

Understanding this is important on a number of levels. First, this could be a starting place for sharing the good news of Jesus with a Jewish friend. I emphasize friend because you would want to gauge a person’s receptivity before dropping a bombshell like Romans 2.28 on them. But if you have a real relationship with a Jewish person, you might ask them to consider what it was that Paul, a former rabbi, was trying to say in this verse.

Romans 2.28 is also important for bridging the gap between the Old and New Testaments. There is a difference between the two. But the gorge is not nearly as wide or difficult to cross as is sometimes believed. And the reason is that there are not two different peoples of God. The church (encompassing both ethnically Jewish and Gentile believers) is now “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6.16). All who believe on Christ are “sons of Abraham” because they, like Abraham, live by faith (Galatians 3.9). For, as Paul reminds us in Romans 2, “he is not a Jew who is one outwardly.” So Judaism lives on in the lives of all who believe – whether they are of Israelite blood or not. And what that means is that the promises, hopes, and teachings of the Old Testament belong to and have a great deal to say to the church today … because we are now the Jews, spiritually; we are children of Abraham by faith in Jesus.

Paul’s emphasis on inward Judaism over against outward Judaism is also a subtle reminder that ethnicity is really quite unimportant in the church of Jesus Christ. God doesn’t look to see what color our skin is, what our last name sounds like, or where our ancestors came from. He looks for faith in His Son. And therefore, Christian churches – as those who are Jews inwardly, though not necessarily outwardly – ought to throw out any and all ethnic demarcations and be one in Jesus (whether by way of outright racism, or in the forming of churches that intentionally cater only to certain kinds of people).

Finally, Paul’s statement about true Judaism can also be applied, two thousand years on, to true Christianity. ‘One is not a Christian who is one outwardly.’ In other words, just because a person was born to Israelite parents, participated in the life of the synagogue, and performed Jewish ceremonial rituals … that did not make him truly, spiritually Jewish. He was only really Jewish if he walked by faith; if his heart (and not just his religion) was right toward God. And the same is true of church-goers today. You and I are not Christians simply because our parents were, or because we have been through the water, or joined the church. We are not Christians because we put a little something (or a lot of something) in the offering plate and come to church regularly. A person can do all those things outwardly – and yet be completely bankrupt of real, inward, living, life-altering trust in Jesus. So beware. “He is not a Jew who is one outwardly.” And he is not a Christian who is one outwardly, either.

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