One of the greatest errors that has plagued churches throughout the centuries has been sectarianism, an error that can take many different forms in many different kinds of churches. Among larger churches, this error sometimes divides the body between the old and the young, usually regarding music preferences; among smaller churches, this error sometimes excludes children from the normal worship service. Yet, a particular form of sectarianism which has been a kind of mainstay in the churches of the Lord from the beginning has been the relationship between those of Jewish and those of Gentile backgrounds.
A common label today to describe Christians from Jewish backgrounds is “messianic Jew” and such churches are usually referred to as “messianic” congregations. This is not the language of the New Testament, however; the early churches consisted of those from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. Indeed, such was the cause of most of the problems that the apostles had to work out in those early days (Acts 15). Yet, today, Christians unnecessarily divide their churches into either Gentile fellowships or Messianic fellowships, and many Christians from Gentile backgrounds look on those from Jewish backgrounds with an intense jealousy, apparently wishing that they too were ethnically Jewish. As a result many Christians are drawn into keeping the letter of the law and keeping the various ceremonies given to the ancient people of Israel despite the fact that the Apostle said that such things were “a shadow of things to come” (Colossians 2:17).
The Church As One New Humanity
The Apostle says to the Christians at Ephesus, “Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth… who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:11, 13, emphasis added). That is, upon faith in Christ someone from a Gentile background ceases to be Gentile, and likewise, as the Apostle continues to say, someone from a Jewish background also ceases to be Jewish upon faith in Christ. The apostle continues in the chapter saying, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” (Vv. 14-16, emphases added). The Apostle also makes this distinction between Jews, Gentiles, and the church in his admonition to the Corinthians to “not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks, or the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32).
The Lord’s “purpose” for the local church is that many different groups be brought together as “one new humanity,” a humanity that is neither Jewish nor Gentile, or to apply the text more to the situation of most American communities: a church that is neither black nor white. Whatever cultural background we come from, it must be set aside if we are going to unite with a church. This is the same concept that built and strengthened the United States as the “great melting pot.” Yet, today, as a result of postmodern philosophy, we live in an age of social justice and identity politics, our country more divided than ever by intersectional labels. As a result, the country is in the midst of an unofficial identity war over our different labels and has already caused much of the violence in the past few years, continuing to be fueled by the media. This is not new, however, but is the natural tendency of sinners which the church in every generation must continually guard against.
Later in chapter 4 of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he admonishes the church, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (V. 3). He then relates in the next few verses, by manner of chiasmus, seven reasons a church ought to strive for unity, the chiasmus centering on Christ as the church’s only Lord (Vv. 4-6). A church is united together as one body by the one Spirit, looking to one hope in one Lord, and this is manifested by each person’s profession of one faith and submission to the waters of one baptism, which is all done by the one God.
Abraham’s True Seed
Many Christians in churches throughout America have the mistaken belief that the covenant that God made to Abraham and his descendants applies to a particular nation of people who are situated east of the Mediterranean Sea on a strip of land smaller than New Jersey. Yet, this is based on a misunderstanding of the conditional and unconditional elements of the Abrahamic covenant as they relate to the Mosaic and the new covenants.
We find the promises and conditions of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 17:6-14. Verses 6-8 relate God’s unconditional promises to Abraham and his descendants. The certainty of these promises is seen in the fact that it is God himself who has made them; he repeats the words “I will” five times in these first three verses. Yet, verses 9-14 shift away from certain fulfillment to the real possibility of some of Abraham’s physical seed being “cut off” and separated from God’s people; even more telling is that the covenant is said to be breakable. Even Moses almost died in the wilderness before his return to Egypt because he neglected his duty to circumcise his children (Exodus 4:24-26).
In the conditions of the Abrahamic covenant we have a clear covenant of works; first, a condition, namely circumcision; second, covenant breakers, the uncircumcised; and third, blessings and curses through either being united or “cut off” from God’s people. Yet, circumcision extends beyond the mere outward act of obedience; it also signified the cutting away of the old fleshly nature and loving God from a renewed heart (Colossians 2:11-12). That this was understood in the condition of the Abrahamic covenant is clear from Moses’s command to the unbelieving children of Abraham to circumcise the foreskins of their hearts (Deuteronomy 10:16). The prophet Jeremiah also understood this (Jeremiah 4:4), and he warned the Jews that those who did not circumcise their hearts would be cut off from God, saying (Jeremiah 9:25-26b):
‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh. … For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.’
Such conditions, however, would seem contradictory to the earlier promises except for the fact that the promised seed was restricted to only one “seed” in particular. The Apostle, writing by the breath of God, says, “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16, emphasis added). Therefore, God did not promise that every physical descendant of Abraham (Ishmael, Esau, all his children by Keturah, the descendants of Jacob’s 12 sons, etc.) would be counted among the children of promise. Rather, the only specific child of promise was Jesus Christ; the rest were not given any kind of unconditional promise to not be “cut off” from the covenant.
Paul made this clear in another letter when he said, “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children” (Romans 9:6b-7a). Then, a couple chapters later, he says that except for a faithful remnant they were cut off: “What then? What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened” (Romans 11:7, emphases added). Similarly, the Lord’s forerunner John also threatened a group of Pharisees and Sadducees with the curses of the Abrahamic covenant, saying that physical descent from Abraham is worthless apart from true faith – that God can give Abraham children from a bunch of rocks on the ground – and they would be cut off if they did not bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8-10).
Every physical descendant of Abraham, even Christ, was placed under the legal condition of obedience. Yet, Christ alone kept the covenant, and thus, only Christ and those united to him by faith are the fulfillment of the promised seed. Such is the Apostle’s conclusion in Galatians 3, saying, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29, emphases added). Abraham’s true seed is Jesus Christ and those united to him by faith, having been circumcised in their hearts.
Therefore, the people of God today are Christians who have been called out from both the Jews and the Gentiles into “one new humanity.” Unbelieving Jews just like unbelieving Gentiles are enemies of God (Romans 5:10; Colossians 1:21). In fact, the book of Revelation twice labels unbelieving Jews as “the synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9; 3:9). That may seem like strong language, but it is the height of blasphemy to observe God’s religious festivals, pray to him, sing to him and play instruments for him while rejecting him (Amos 5:18-24). Unbelieving Jews need the gospel, not our veneration.