~ Christian, Jewish Heritage ~
Many have the impression that God looked over the nations of the earth and chose Israel among all for the most special mission of bringing redemption to the world. Moreover is the popular belief that the Jewish people failed this mission, thus leaving it to the Gentiles to spread the Gospel (Good News) of Christ to the world. How sadly wrong on both counts!
Once upon a time, there was no Jewish nation. There were no Jews. God's redemptive plan was so crucial that He had to create an entirely new nation, nurturing them from scratch, so to speak, for this most sacred role of recording and safeguarding His revelations and of serving as the conduit of His own Incarnation in Christ.
A man named Abram, born in Ur of the Chaldeans, lived in Canaan as a wealthy livestock owner. Abram did not know God, but was introduced with an incredible promise: "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3, NIV).
So important was this covenant, "Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine" (Genesis 14:18a, NIV) to Abram, who, in turn, "gave him a tenth of everything" (14:20b). What a wondrous foreshadowing of the new nation's mission. Melchizedek, the bread and wine provider, means "king of righteousness" (Hebrews 7:2) and Salem, meaning peace, was also a short form of Jerusalem (Psalm 76:2). This king had no ancestry, never being born and never dying. Christ's priesthood was "in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron" (Hebrews 7:11, Psalms 110:4).
God confirmed His covenant by renaming Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of many) and instituting the rite of circumcision for him and his descendants. Later three angelic appearing men paid a visit to Abraham's camp to further discuss the unfoldment of this providence. One of the three was Yahweh Himself (The God of my salvation). (See Genesis 18.) This mission was so essential that the Incarnational Person of the triune God, Christ Immanuel (God-with-us) was personally preparing this man from Mesopotamia for his work even before he had one descendant. Now there was only one Jew in the whole world, and God chose Abraham. The footprints and handprints of Christ were already saturating the Scriptures yet to be written, right from the first chapters of Genesis.
This was an everlasting covenant. "He remembers his covenant forever, the word he commanded for a thousand generations, the covenant he made with Abraham" (Psalms 105:8-9a, NIV). (See Romans 11.)
As decreed, Jesus the Christ was born through the nation of Israel. The scribes of that nation fulfilled the crucial task of copying the sacred Scriptures without error, whose accuracy were confirmed again by the discovery of the scrolls at Qumran along the Dead Sea in 1947. The following year the Jews, without a homeland for almost 2000 years, streamed back into their ancestral land, then a forsaken, barren desert. Consider this happened only 3 years after the holocaust and feel the miraculous works of God. Within only one generation of the Jewish people, Israel's second largest economic resource is agriculture. In a short time, the desert was blooming and water flowing. St. Paul declared that God determined the exact locations and lifetimes of all nations (see Acts 17:26). All this has been prophesized.
The sacrifice of Yahweh (God my Salvation) in the Christ (the Messiah) was prophesized by Daniel to the exact place and day. The Hebrew scholars knew this, so it was not a strange question to ask John the Baptizer and Jesus if either was the Messiah. Herod took the prophesy seriously as well, slaughtering the boys of Bethlehem.
To His exclusively Jewish apostles, Jesus instructed to make "disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:18). That was the plan from the beginning, as Jesus told them again, "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:7).
The birth of Christ's body, His church, happened on Pentecost with the infusion of the Holy Spirit. Three thousand Jews became part of His body, "and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47b). Temple priests and Jewish pilgrims from other nations alike were embracing Christ and being baptized.
The exclusively Jewish Church of Christ grew into many thousands and carried the Gospel throughout the massive Roman Empire. Its power and prevalence became formidable, unlike the Jewish nation before Pentecost who enjoyed freedom of trade, commerce, travel and religious practices during the Roman occupation. The Roman Empire, under Nero, felt so threatened it began a systematic program of persecution and execution of those who professed Christ. Fearing for their own positions, Jewish political leaders scrambled to keep their alliance with the Empire and joined in the holocaust. This soon failed, since Christianity was a Jewish faith and movement and the target. Within just 40 years of Christ's crucifixion, in 70 AD, the holy temple, the center of the Jewish heart and life, was destroyed. Another great Jewish diaspora or dispersion began, lasting almost 2000 years, finally ending just after World War 2.
The Jewish Church did do as Christ commanded, and shared the Gospel with all nations. Gentiles and Jews became brothers and sisters in Christ. God’s plan for the task of Israel in being the vehicle of salvation to all the world was indeed fulfilled. While the salvation baton has been passed onto the Gentile Christians, the Jewish people merit our gratitude for this, plus for both the Old and New Testaments, written and copied by Jews (with the exception of Dr. Luke), giving us the precious Gospels, letters and wondrous Book of the Revelation of Christ.
Have we forgotten that the New Testament is also Jewish Scripture? This rhetorical question leads to a real one: Why, then, the nation of Israel does not believe in their own biblical writings? The answer begins in the Jewish staunch and adamant assertion that God is One. This, of course, is absolutely true and a gift of understanding from them to a world that was polytheistic. Gentile Christendom had many struggles and historical Councils attempting to explain the mystery of the Trinity, one God, three Persons, and agree on a creed statement.
Until the baptism of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the very apostles of Christ didn’t understand it any more than a Jew today. When Jesus said it was His time to formally present Himself for who He is in Jerusalem, the disciples were thrilled, thinking, “Finally, we’re going to reclaim our authority over the Roman Empire and the earth.” But Jesus said He was going to Jerusalem to die. This threw them into great confusion and denial. After Jesus resurrected, they still didn’t get it. “Later Jesus appeared to the eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen” (Mark 16:14, NIV). Before Christ’s ascension, they still didn’t understand, asking, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). And “The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worship him; but some doubted” (Matthew 28:16-17).
This was, and still is, the Jewish mind. To say they “rejected” Jesus is less accurate than to see, historically, how they were spiritually blind. Without the Holy Spirit, there is no vision and we are all just as blind to the truth. Indeed, Jesus said the Holy Spirit will reveal the truth, and that we can worship the Father only in spirit and truth.
Israel is planning to rebuild the temple. Liturgical vestments and vessels are being made. Oddly, the very orthodox Jews are protesting the plans. The Talmud (commentaries on the Torah) predicts the Messiah will descend from the heavens in the New Jerusalem temple, establishing the great Messianic Age, to which Christians refer as the Millennial Reign of Christ. The Book of Revelation says the same thing, but the Talmud said it first! Like the apostles prior to the Holy Spirit, Israel, as a nation, missed grasping the power of Christ’s First Coming and Resurrection. John the Baptizer even questioned Christ about His role.
Israel fulfilled God’s plan for which He created that nation. However, that plan isn’t finished. “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited. Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: [from Isaiah 59:20] ‘The deliverer will come from Zion [the Talmud says this is the Messiah]; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’ As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy on you. For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:25-33a).
Without an understanding of first century Middle Eastern life, ethics and culture, we miss much of the wealth and power of Jesus’ parables and metaphors. We need to know about people’s relationship to their land, what “clean” and “unclean” truly meant, the ritual meaning of blood, how sheep flocks were managed, how a shepherd had to be a vet, a scout, tender nurturer and martial artist. (Wolves, wild dogs and robbing thugs were a constant threat.)
The Gospels and Book of Revelation lean heavily on the theme of mystical marriage, with Christ as the Bridegroom and His Church the Bride. So let’s consider the first century Jewish heritage of marriage, which concerns our spiritual life today.
A son’s father had the ultimate authority to determine who would be the wife, though the father may consult the son or his own wife. The son then approached the father of the selected woman, usually without her knowing it, to ask permission. If the woman’s father agreed, negotiations would go on for the bride-price. (See Genesis 34:12 or Exodus 22:16 for early examples.) The man needed to pay the father to compensate him for the loss of his daughter’s labor and as insurance in case she was widowed. The father, of course, would demand top dollar, and it would often take the man a while to meet the price. (Imagine the self-esteem boost the daughter would get when she later found out she was worth 10 goats and 2 oxen!) Instead of money, work or military conquests was the price. Jacob worked for Laban 14 years for Rachel (Genesis 29:30).
When the price was met, the daughter was notified and prepared a room with a betrothal meal, if she wanted to marry. The man would knock on her door and wait. If she was ready, the woman would open the door just a crack, which meant yes. The man was welcome to open the door and walk in, sit with the woman and share the meal, feeding each other and drinking wine from the same cup. This marked the covenant of unity and mutual devotion. Now betrothed, they were covenant bound, one as strong as marriage that could be broken only with a writ of divorce, although no sexual relations were permitted until the wedding. (That’s why Joseph considered quietly divorcing the pregnant but virgin Mary even though they were not married.)
The man then virtually left his betrothed for a year while he built a new home with the necessary furnishings. The woman would know when he was returning for her only as a range of time. She didn’t know what day, though it could be ten or more before her guess or ten or more after. The anticipation of that day was high and she had to be ready! And the time the bridegroom would come was midnight.
He would come in a large procession, with excited people running ahead to alert the bride. She was his and he had all prepared for the wedding feast, including proper clothing for the guests. The banquet typically lasted seven days.
Our contemporary weddings have remnants of the traditional Jewish ones, but vital elements are out of place and made meaningless or even silly instead of sacred. For example, the father still “gives the bride away,” but only ceremonially and at the wedding, rather than a year earlier under a sacred, binding covenant. Covenantal gestures are done after the wedding as fun, rather than before as a solemnity. Bride and groom may join hands to cut the wedding cake and feed each other a piece, but too often smashing the cake in each other’s faces, everyone courteously laughing as though it was still funny after seeing it done at wedding after wedding. Covenantal wine may be shared, but in separate glasses with arms linked. Makes for a cute photo, but not much else.
Often Jesus would announce, “the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding feast.” Of course He was referring to the first century customs, so we can recognize that the kingdom of heaven is nothing like engagements and weddings with which we are familiar.
God chose the bride for His Son. As one God in one Spirit, God loves us with infinite depths, romancing us with exquisite mountains, oceans, flowers, fragrances, grace and glory. God announced His bride-price to be His all. We are priceless in His eyes, so, in Christ, He “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness…He humbled himself and become obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:7-8, NIV). Christ has the permission of the Father to pursue us as His bride, the betrothal covenant sealed with His own pure blood, cleansing us of our impure blood. At His last Passover with His apostles, they ate from the same bread and drink from the same cup, and we continue in their steps.
Christ knocks on our door. When we open it just a crack, we are saying “yes, come in, I want to be yours forever.” He tells us that He is making a home for us, and “will come back and take you to be with me” (John 14:8). His Revelation through St. John tells us of the future day when “the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear” (Revelation 19:7b-8a). So we make ourselves ready.
We must wear the fine linen which will be provided. In a wedding parable, Jesus tells how someone was taken out from the banquet for not wearing the available wedding garments (Matthew 22:12-13). We must discard the clothing of our making.
In another wedding parable, Jesus tells how “at that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom… At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’… The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut…Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or hour” (Matthew 25:1-13).
God created the nation of Israel to present the Bridegroom to all the nations of the world for a great, old-fashioned Jewish marriage. This was done. Now we, the Bride, people of all nations who opened the door of our hearts upon hearing His knock, who are betrothed to our Beloved Redeemer, must prepare ourselves for the great wedding feast. “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city…I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star” (Revelation 22:14,16, NIV).
Let us keep our robes clean, keep watching, keep anticipating, and keep growing in our love for Him, by the grace and power of His Holy Spirit who has already made His home in us.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services © June 2002
Responses are welcome at: Reflections@prayergear.com
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