What About the Jews?
I remember seeing a bumper sticker one time that said, “My boss is a Jewish Carpenter.” The sticker also had a picture of a Crucifix in order to dispel any confusion. Jesus Christ was a Jew. Why, then, are His followers not Jews? Questions like this and statements like, “[S]alvation is from the Jews” (Jn. 4:22) make us question many things about the Jews, including the state of their salvation today. What did Paul mean by, “For 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” (Rom. 1:16, emphasis added)?
Two Ways to Be Jewish
Many of our questions about the Jews can be answered if we understand the basic fact that there are two different types of Jews: religious and ethnic. They are not always the same. In this article, we will mainly focus on the facts surrounding the first century A.D. In short, to be an ethnic Jew, one simply had to be born from a Jewish family. To be a religious Jew, one had to follow the Jewish religion, using the Law of Moses as the rule, either by heritage or conversion, converts being referred to as God-fearers (partial converts) and Proselytes (full converts- including circumcision).
Simon Peter, the apostle of Jesus Christ, was born as an ethnic Jew, and he also lived as a religious Jew. He followed the Law of Moses the best he could as long as it was legally binding (Heb. 8:6-13). When Christ’s covenant replaced Moses’ covenant, Peter became a Christian, rejecting Judaism as a religion. However, Peter’s religious conversion did not remove the fact that he was still born as an ethnic Jew.
Similarly, the apostle Paul was both a religious Jew and an ethnic Jew until he converted to Christ (Acts 22). From his conversion on, he was a religious Christian, but he was still an ethnic Jew (Acts 21:39). As a Christian, he stopped binding the Law of Moses. As an ethnic Jew, he still sometimes participated in Jewish customs, but he did not bind them on others (Acts 21:26). Usually, his participation in Jewish tradition was in order to further the gospel of Christ (Acts 16:3; 1 Cor. 9:19-23). Yet, when Christians started binding the things of Jewish law and claiming justification by the law, he warned them of the condemnation they faced (Gal. 5:4). The Law of Moses was given to the nation of Israel with the underlying purpose of leading the entire nation to Christ (Gal. 5:24-26).
Jesus Christ as a Jew
Like Peter and Paul, Jesus the Messiah was born in the nation of Israel to a Jewish family; therefore, He was an ethnic Jew. Being presented at the temple and circumcised on the eighth day paved the way for His Jewish ministry. Before His crucifixion, Jesus, as a religious Jew, lived His entire life under the Law of Moses, and He taught and kept it perfectly. In Christ’s first recorded sermon, He told the crowds, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Mt. 5:17-18).
Christ fulfilled and accomplished the Law and the Prophets by keeping the Law perfectly (Heb. 4:15) and fulfilling every Old Testament prophecy about Him (Lk. 24:25-27). His last words on the cross were, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30), and when he “yielded up His spirit,” “the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mt. 27:50-51), signifying, among many things, the end of the tabernacle/temple worship as enforced by the Law of Moses.
The Law Was Replaced
The death of Christ ushered in the new covenant of Jesus Christ, which made the old covenant obsolete (Heb. 8:6-13; 9:15-17). Before His death, when someone asked Jesus, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” (Mt. 19:16), He responded, “[I]f you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments,” referring to the Ten Commandments (Mt. 19:17-19). However, after His resurrection, His prescription changed to, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mk. 16:16).
Physical and Spiritual Israel
About twenty centuries before Jesus Christ came to this earth, God promised Abraham, “I will make you a great nation” (Gen. 12:2-3). This promise, in a general sense, was a reference to the nation of Israel, which came from the lineage of Abraham. It was this nation that was given the Law of Moses (Deut. 5:1-5), in hopes that it would bring them to faith in the coming Messiah (Gal. 4:4-5; 5:24-26).
The New Testament explains the promise given to Abraham a bit further. The apostle Paul writes, “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,’ that is, Christ” (Gal. 3:16). Both the legal lineage (Mt. 1:1-7) and biological lineage (Lk. 3:23-38) of Christ mention Abraham. The promise to Abraham was to bless the world through his Descendant, Jesus the Christ.
The New Testament refers to the Law of commandments given through Moses as “the dividing wall” between Jews and the rest of the world (Gentiles) (Eph. 2:14-16). The nation of Israel was a chosen race of God, and He enforced certain laws to keep them pure and separate from the rest of the world that rejected Him (Ex. 19:5-6). By the time Jesus came to earth, it was well understood by the Jewish nation that they were not to be like the Gentiles (non-Jewish people) (Mt. 6:7, 31-32).
Matthew, in his introductory chapter, tells us that Jesus, being born as a Jew, came to “save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21). Jesus spent most of His ministry working among the Jews and sending His evangelists out to the Jews (Mt. 10:5). John, in his introductory chapter, gives us a bit of sad news, though. “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (Jn. 1:11). The Lamb of God was rejected. What heartbreaking news! After the nation of Israel’s worst atrocity of history, Peter told them plainly, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ- this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). Christ came to His own, but they heartlessly murdered Him.
Though Jesus ministered to Gentiles while on the earth, and even made example of certain Gentiles’ faith (Mt. 8:10-13), it wasn’t until somewhere between seven and ten years after His crucifixion that the Lord plainly opened the door of salvation to the Gentiles, fulfilling Acts 1:8 (Acts 11:18). For this reason, the apostle Paul is able to boldly claim, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16, NIV, emphasis added)!
What does all of this mean? It means that there is no distinction between physical nations anymore, but all true Christians can be “one in Christ Jesus,” being spiritual descendants of Abraham, “heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:27-29). Anyone who has been added to the Lord has been added to spiritual Israel, the nation of promise. A mark of a true Jew during the covenant of Moses was physical circumcision. Regarding Christians, Paul declares, “[I]n Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions” (Col. 2:11-13). Christ has brought both Jew and Gentile together in one body, making peace (Eph. 2:14-16). Salvation is not found among physical Israel, but among the church, which is spiritual Israel (Eph. 5:23). Peter writes to a group of both ethnic Jews and Gentiles, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9-10).
What About Modern Jews?
When thinking about modern culture and the Jews today, there are two facts one must remember. First, there were (and still are) two different types of Jews: religious and ethnic. Second, the Father sent Jesus Christ to earth to fulfill the Law of Moses and usher in the new covenant. If one tries to teach any part of the Law of Moses, he or she is bound by the whole Law (Gal. 3:10-11), which includes animal sacrifices (Lev. 1). That is why Paul can say, “[I]f you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:2-4). If you want to bind circumcision, Moses’ Ten Commandments, meat laws, or anything bound exclusively by the Law of Moses, you must also accept with it animal sacrifices, which means you reject the sacrifice of Christ.
For those who are born as ethnic Jews, but have decided to dedicate their lives to obeying and following Jesus Christ, there is no difference between them and someone born as an African, Russian, American, Greek, or Brazilian, who has also decided to be a Christian. They “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28); therefore, we accept them with love and a spirit of unity. However, those who live as religious Jews, trying to be justified by the Law of Moses, are rejecting Christ. They turn away from the salvation, which is the free gift of God in Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:23), and they depend on animal sacrifices to deal with their sins. What a tragedy it is that God’s very own people rejected Him while He was on the earth! How heartbreaking that must have been for God! It must still pain Him. On the other hand, how blessed we are that God has “granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18)! Have you accepted it?