Paul, Part 5: Grafted In
Paul’s words in his epistles have led to some confusion among believers about the place that we as Gentiles have in relation to Israel. Most people today don’t realize how intricately Christianity was interwoven within Judaism at its beginning. Looking at Christianity and Judaism, one would never guess that Christianity was initially a sect within Judaism. Let’s take a look at Paul’s words to see what we can find out about the relationship between God, Israel, and the church.
Before we look at what Paul had to say, first we must understand the relationship between God and Israel. God brought the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt and brought them to Mt. Sinai, where He made a covenant with them (Leviticus 26:46). If the people of Israel would obey the terms of the covenant, God’s commandments, then He would bless them and protect them in the land which He was going to give them (Leviticus 26:1-13). As time went on, Israel repeatedly broke the terms of the covenant, going after foreign gods and disobeying God’s commandments. When this happened, God would punish the people. Even though Israel did this, God promised that He would never forsake His people Israel, nor would He break His covenant with them (Leviticus 26:44-45, Jeremiah 33). He also promised that one day, He would change the hearts of His people so they would walk according to His commandments and be blessed (Deuteronomy 30:1-14, Jeremiah 31:31-40, Ezekiel 36:24-38). This is what the people of Israel were waiting for, and are still looking for today: the coming Messiah who would restore them. Part of the job of Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah was to provide the way for Israel to be blessed by turning to Him and being cleansed from their sins. As a nation, Israel did not repent and turn to Yeshua, however, and so they would be taken off into exile once more (Matthew 23:37-39). At the same time, the Israelites who did believe in Yeshua at that time recognized that His sacrifice was not only for the Jewish people, but that He was also going to bring about the fulfillment of the prophecies that the Gentiles would worship God alongside the people of Israel (Zechariah 8:20-23, Malachi 1:11, Acts 15:15-18). This did not lessen the place of Israel, but rather it is through God’s blessings upon Israel that we as believers in Israel’s Messiah are also blessed.
God’s wisdom is shown in His purpose to redeem the whole world through His people Israel. From the beginning, the calling of Israel was to be a light to the nations (Deuteronomy 28:10, Isaiah 60:3, Micah 4:2). It is them to whom God revealed Himself in the past, and again will in the future: “To whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Torah and the Temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers and from whom is Messiah” (Romans 9:4-5). Paul, as the apostle to the Gentiles, preached the gospel of salvation to bring hope to the nations in order to make them part of the commonwealth of Israel. We as the church do not, nor ever will we, replace Israel: “I say then, they (Israel) did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the nations, to make them jealous. Now if their transgression be riches for the nations, how much more will their fulfillment be… For if their rejection be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead” (Romans 11:11-12, 15). When God fulfills His promises to restore the people of Israel, it will be made clear that they are a chosen people before God: “For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In an outburst of anger I hid My face from you for a moment; but with everlasting loving-kindness I will have compassion on you… In righteousness you will be established” (Isaiah 54:7-8, 14a). This righteousness is through Yeshua the Messiah of Israel. Although Israel rejected Him for a time, God has not left His people to be abandoned. History has seemed cruel to the people of Israel, and some have misunderstood this to mean that God has rejected them completely, instead changing His graces to be upon the Christian church alone. But this ideology is directly addressed in Scripture (Jeremiah 33:23-26).
If all of these promises are for Israel, then what about the nations? How do we fit into the master plan? Well, Romans 11 continues: “But if some of the branches (Israelites) were broken off, and you being a wild olive (a Gentile), were grafted in among them and became partakers with the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant; remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you” (verses 17-18).
What does it mean that we are a grafted-in branch, and how do we practically live that out? Paul uses another image to describe the relationship between Jew and Gentile in Messiah: “For He is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by having put to death the enmity” (Ephesians 2:14-16). Becoming “one new man” does not mean that one’s heritage and identity are lost, nor does it invalidate the specific national calling of Israel. Some have used this passage as well as those like Galatians 3:26-29 and Colossians 3:11 to say that in Messiah, there remains no special calling or blessing upon Israel. There are obvious differences between the groups Paul contrasts in these passages, and that serves to prove his point: even though we are all different and unique, in regard to our faith which saves us we are one. It is like in a marriage: a husband and wife become one, but they are still two different people with distinct roles in their marriage. So in Ephesians, what is the enmity, this law of commandments contained in ordinances that separated Jew and Gentile? Is it the Torah, God’s commandments? There is no commandment which would have created enmity between Israel and those from the nations who wished to worship the One True God. In fact, the wisdom of God’s Torah is supposed to attract the nations (Deuteronomy 4:6). Gentiles who saw the wisdom in God’s commandments and genuinely sought to obey them were encouraged to never feel as if there was a wall between them and Israel (Isaiah 56:3, 6). Some of the man-made commandments and traditions, however, caused enmity between them and the Gentiles. The Jews saw Gentiles as naturally impure. They said it was only by becoming a Jew through conversion that a Gentile could be saved (Acts 15:1). Likewise, the Gentiles looked with scorn on the Jews, seeing them as elitist. After God showed His will through giving the Holy Spirit to Gentiles (Acts 10), it was clear that the walls of enmity that man had built up to separate between Jew and Gentile were not meant to stand.
So what was Paul’s rule for the churches in this matter? He lays out his thoughts in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24. This passage clarifies Paul’s intent in Galatians 3:26-29. When it comes to salvation and justification, all are made righteous through faith alone. When it comes to living out that faith, what counts is following God’s commands, as he is speaking of in the passage in 1 Corinthians. There are different expressions of faith for different members in the body. Think about it this way: Paul says “there is neither male nor female,” (Galatians 3:28). Does this mean that in Messiah there is no difference between men and women? Besides any obvious physical differences, Paul himself gives different instructions for different groups of people (1 Corinthians 11:4-5, Titus 2). This is not because there is a different standard of holiness for everyone, but because certain commands don’t apply to everyone the same way. This is true in the Torah as well, where different commandments apply only for certain groups of people. There are certain commandments only for Levites (Numbers 1:51), there are different times of purification for men and women (Leviticus 12:2, 5). and there are certain things Gentiles are not able to do (Exodus 12:43), among many other distinctions.
So according to Paul, just because Gentiles are grafted into Israel and together we are one body, Jews do not become Gentiles and Gentiles do not become Jews. In Romans 3:1-2, Paul declares, “What advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect! First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.” Paul reminds us once again that the Jew is first and the nations are second (Romans 1:16). Because of this, circumcision is very important and has great value, for it is the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham, which is an everlasting covenant (Genesis 17:9-11, 19). The people of Israel have been specifically called from among the nations of the earth to serve Him in a special way (Deuteronomy 7:6, Amos 3:2). We as Gentiles are also to obey God in the way He has called us, keeping His commands in the way they apply to us.
Christianity over the years has lost its perspective on its relationship with Israel, as well as Israel’s relationship with God. While Christianity began as a sect within Judaism, this relationship soon became muddied as more Gentiles began to believe in Yeshua and the Jewish thought of the earliest believers began to interact with other forms of philosophy. With the influx of Gentile believers, the movement became overwhelmed until few ethnic Jews remained, and over time the wedge was driven deeper and deeper. As time progressed, some influential people have ignored Paul’s warning to not become arrogant toward Israel, who is still God’s chosen. They have rejected the tree they were grafted into and attempted to plant one of their own. Some have said that since we are one new man, there is no reason for Israel to have a special calling. The problem with this is that instead of there no longer being any Jew or Greek in Messiah, everyone is Greek.
Israel is still God’s chosen people, and He will still fulfill the prophecies He made to them so long ago in regard to their choseness and their future restoration. The church has not become Israel, Jews do not become Gentiles when they come to believe in Yeshua, and neither do Gentiles become Jews. Although we don’t become Jews, we are blessed with the opportunity to share in the rich history of the faith of our spiritual father Abraham, partaking with Israel of the “rich root of the olive tree” as we anxiously wait alongside of them in anticipation of the coming of Messiah.