Saturday, October 24, 2009

Paul, an Apostle to the Gentiles

Paul was the apostle Jesus sent by the lord Messiah Jesus to preach his message about the coming kingdom of God to the nations [Gentiles]. Paul did not desert his Jewish roots as a result of becoming a follower of the lord Jesus. As a Jew, a fundamental defining mark was his monotheism; and that Paul was a monotheist is perfectly clear from his letters (Rom:16:27; 1 Cor:8:6; 8:4; Rom:3:30; Eph:1:3; 4:6; 1 Tim:1:17; 2:5, etc.). As the apostle sent to the nations [Gentiles], Paul saw his mission to be that of bringing Gentiles into “the commonwealth of Israel” though faith in the lord Messiah Jesus (Eph:2:12); and as a result that they thereby became members of “the Israel of God” (Gal:6:16).

What Paul knew, and we can learn; is that in the OT, God created the world and chose a line of faithful individuals through whom He worked out His plans for mankind. God began to reveal Himself to these persons and through them to the world. He then chose the people of Israel, not because they were a great nation, but precisely because of their insignificance among the nations (Deut:7:7). This exemplifies the way God works, as enunciated in 1 Corinthians 1:27: “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong”.

Jesus summed it up concisely in the words, “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). This is not an ethnically motivated statement, but a statement about spiritual reality, as Jesus said, “My words, they are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). To understand his words on the level of the flesh is to misunderstand them. The spiritual point of the reference to the Jews as the conduit of God’s salvation is to put into focus the “salvation history” delineated in the Old Testament. “Salvation” and “Jews” are linked in such a way that to be severed from the Jewish “tree” is to be severed from salvation.

In Romans 11 Paul portrays the people of God as an “olive tree” whose roots stretch back in Biblical antiquity to Abraham who constitutes a holy root (Romans 11:16), rooted in a deep relationship with YHVH God. Jews are branches of the “olive tree”, but because of their unbelief some of them were broken off by God (Romans 11:17); but the believing Jews, including Paul and members of the early Jewish Assembly, remain a part of the “olive tree”. The breaking off of the unbelieving “branches”, even if many, did not mean that God had rejected Israel as His people. It was with this very fact that Paul started this portion of his letter: “I ask, then, has God rejected His people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew (Romans 11:1,2). In God’s wisdom and mercy, the braking off of those unbelieving branches created an opening into which believing Gentiles could be grafted into the “olive tree”; this “olive tree” represents the people God has chosen, also called “the elect” (Romans 11:5,7) In this way “through their trespass, salvation has come to the Gentiles [nations] (Romans 11:11).

But with this gracious provision of salvation for the nations [Gentiles] comes a stern warning:

“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a “wild olive shoot”, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the “olive tree”, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you (Romans 11).

So we see that salvation is portrayed as being grafted into the “olive tree” and drawing spiritual life and nourishment from its root. A branch stays alive only so long as it remains firmly grafted in the “tree”; no branch can survive being cut off from the “tree”. To remain in this “tree” is life; to be cut of from it is death. Jesus, the “deliverer” or “redeemer”, is a essential part of the “tree” (Romans 11:26; Isaiah 59:20); therefore, to be united with the Messiah through faith is another way to explain how one is grafted into the “olive tree”. That is why in John 15:1, Jesus also speaks in terms of a vine and its branches. Grafting is a regular procedure in viticulture; it is YHVH God who grafts in or cuts off, because He is the “vinedresser”: As Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1). He also warned that unfruitful branches could be cut off and thrown away, “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:6); but “whosoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (vs. 5).

What all this means is that to be cut off from the spiritual “olive tree” (or vine, Isaiah 5:1-7) of Israel is to be cut off from salvation, whether he be Jew or Gentile, which is precisely what Paul wars could happen, and has happened to unbelieving Jews:

Romans 11:19-22: Thou wilt say then, Branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. Well; by their unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by your faith. Be not high minded, but fear: for if God spared not the natural branches, neither will He spare you. Behold then the goodness and severity of God: toward them that fell, severity; but toward you, God’s goodness, IF you continue in His goodness: otherwise you also shall be cut off.

On the other hand those Jews who are willing to return to their God will be grafted back into their own “olive tree”.

Romans 11: 23-24: And they also, if they continue not in their unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again. For if thou wast cut out of that which is by nature a wild olive tree, and wast grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree; how much more shall these, which are the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?

Notice these last words, “their own olive tree”, for it was theirs by God’s grace in the first place, although it also becomes the Gentile’s by God’s grace, by their being grafted into it through faith; for it is through faith that we become members of the “Israel of God” (Gal:6:16). When we are grafted into the “olive tree” through faith, then “their olive tree” also becomes our “olive tree”.

Galatians 3:7 Know therefore that they that are of faith, the same are sons of Abraham.

Galatians 3:29 And if you are the Messiah’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed [offspring], heirs according to promise.

Romans 2: 28-29: For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.

Romans 4:12: “(The purpose was) to make him (Abraham) the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

Romans 9:6-8: But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel: and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.‘. That means that it is not the children of the flesh that are children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.

Phil:3:3: For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God, and glory in the Messiah Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh:

Can we grasp what the Apostle Paul is saying in all these passages? Is he not declaring that it is through faith that a person becomes a descendant of Abraham, and “heirs according to promise” (Gal:3:29)? It is by faith, not physical descent, that one becomes a child of God. Being a Jew is not a matter of race or religion but “a matter of the heart” (Rom:2:29), so being an Israelite is not a matter of physical descent from Israel; to belong to Israel is a mater of being “children of the promise” (Rom:9:8) through faith. So he tells the Philippians, a proportion of whom were Gentiles, “we are the real circumcision”. “Circumcision” was another word used to describe Jews (Eph:2:11; Col”4:11; Rom:3:30; 4:9, etc.), so Paul is saying to the Philippians, “you and I, we are the real Jews”.

The point is that the true believer is the real Jew before God, the spiritual Jew whose praise comes from God, not man (Rom:2:29). Becoming a believer is to become a true Israelite, a real Jew! Little wonder that Paul declared that in the Messiah Jesus “there is neither Jew not Greek” (Gal:3:28; Col:3:11) - there are only real Israelites, the true descendants of Abraham (Gal:3:29), the heirs of God’s promises, the chosen people of God, the spiritual Jews! In the Assembly of God there are only spiritual Israelites, all of whom are circumcised in heart (Rom:2:28-29),

Notice the apostle Peter wrote to encourage persecuted believers by reminding them that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called your out of darkness into His marvellous light (1 Peter 2:9). In this verse the terms applied to Israel in the OT are now applied to the Assembly of God (still largely made up of Jews when 1 Peter was written); what Peter writes echoes a passage like Deuteronomy 7:6: “For you are a people holy to YHVH your God. YHVH you God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Mal:3:17, etc.)

It should be noted that when we speak of “Jewish roots” we are speaking about the rich spiritual heritage made available to us through the Jewish scriptures known to most people as the Old Testament. Knowing now that we are the true Israelites, the real Jews, why would we ever desire to be severed from the “olive tree” into which God has graciously grafted us?

So we see that the question that Paul presented to the Jews of his day was not on whether the Gentiles could become Jews, but on how the transition is made. Paul proclaims that it is through faith in the lord Messiah Jesus. He makes this clear in Ephesians 2:11-13:

Wherefore remember, that once you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called ‘the Un-circumcision’ by that which is called Circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands- remember that you were at that time separate from the Messiah, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in the Messiah Jesus you that once were far off are brought near by the blood of Christ.

In the Messiah Jesus, then, we are no longer “alienated from the people of Israel” (politeias, re. Eph:2:12), but are now members of God’s elect people. “’The Israel of God’ is still God’s covenant people… into whom believing Gentiles are being incorporated” (Dunn, Romans, p.540, re. Rom:9:4). The profound consequence of this incorporation into Israel is the Gentile, who is now a member of “the real circumcision” (Phil:3:3), is no longer a “stranger to the covenant of promise’ (Eph:2:12), but becomes “the Gentile convert entering into Israel’s promised blessings” (Dunn, Romans, p.534, re. Rom:9:4). Everything that God promised Israel becomes ours in the Messiah Jesus (2 Cor:1:20). So Paul could say that in the Messiah Jesus “all things are yours” (1 Cor:3:21), such is the unimaginable riches of our inheritance: “as it is written” ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him’ [Isaiah 64:4]” (1 Cor:2:9); so there is abundant cause to give “thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of he saints in light” (Colossians 1:12).

Let us remember: no branch can survive once it is cut off from the ‘tree” and its “roots” - here we are, of course, speaking about spiritual life and survival. Little wonder that the Gentile church, having separated from its Jewish roots, has strayed into serious doctrinal error, and that error leads to death. It is time to realize this and to head the word of God, “come back to YHVH your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in faithful love, and He relents about inflicting disaster” (Joel 2:13). YHVH, The God of Israel, is not only the God of the Jews but of all who belong to “the Israel of God” (Gal:6:16), God’s spiritual Israel. The true Israelite will aim to love Him wholeheartedly (Mark 12:30, etc) and learn to honour His name, for it is wonderful” (Judg:13:18; Isaiah 28:29, etc.)