Israel: a People, a Faith and a Land

“But one testified in a certain place, saying: "What is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You take care of him? You have made him a little lower than the angels; You have crowned him with glory and honour, and set him over the works of Your hands. You have put all things in subjection under his feet." For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him. But we see Jesus…” (Hebrews 1:6-9).

Jesus is unique in every sense of the word. As God incarnate, there has never been and never can be anyone like him. As the second Adam, he is like us all; he is the truly “universal” Man. As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews ponders the eighth Psalm’s apparent contradiction of everything we observe in the natural world, he finds the solution to the enigma Jesus the representative Man. The natural world is subject to man but as we look at the world, we see the very opposite (consider the chaos caused by the recent eruption of Eyjafjallajokul in Iceland). Neverteless, the creation really is subject to the Son of Man, Jesus, who is all that God created mankind to be when he made us in his image.

Jesus in our image

Another factor that makes Jesus totally different to every rabbi, guru, avatar or religious leader is that everyone wants to claim him for themselves; everyone wants to make him over in their image, or at least into an image they can cope with. In his earthly life it was thought by some that Jesus was a resurrected John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the Old Testament prophets (Matthew 16:13f).

For the last half century, Jewish scholars have been reclaiming Jesus, setting him forth as a first-century sage and rabbi who was turned into the Son of God by later Christians. In recent years, Palestinians have been so successful at claiming him for themselves that a widely-used American public school text book states that Christianity was started by “a young Palestinian named Jesus." The “heathen and pagan” Jackson Browne composed a memorable and searching anthem to the “Rebel Jesus” and Richard Dawkins, no less, is an atheist for Jesus; he thinks a “reborn Jesus” would out of modesty decline to wear an “Atheists for Jesus” T-shirt and opt for one blazoned with “Jesus for Atheists”. Even Sir Elton John, has got in on the act; he thinks Jesus was a "super-intelligent gay man"!

Cultural makeovers

From all this, it might appear that the trend for Jesus make-overs is confined to those with an anti-Christian agenda. Recently, however, I attended a conference at which I listened to a number of /excellent reports from some outstanding evangelical scholars, including one from India and another from China. The speaker from India, after outlining the history of Christianity on the sub-continent from the first century to the present remarked that a major concern for Indian Christians is to “focus on the Asian identity of Jesus Christ”.

An Asian Jesus! Alarm bells started to ring and during a coffee break I shared my fear with the speaker. I could understand our Indian brothers and sisters wishing to distance themselves from colonialism and wanting to scotch the all-too-common perception of Christianity as a Western religion but, I pointed out, Jesus is not “Asian”; he is Jewish. The speaker responded that a Jewish Jesus would serve to increase tensions between Christians and Muslims.

In another paper, we were informed that in China Christianity is becoming a “genuinely Chinese religion”. As we’ve already noted, Jesus is in a very real sense the universal man but he can never be ethnically other than Jewish. The gospel is for all but Christianity can never be a Chinese, Indian or English religion. Christianity was (and still is) regarded by some as a white man’s religion, and nineteenth and early twentieth century missionaries often converted the nations not only to Christianity but also to Englishness. Some English Christians still find it difficult to view Jesus as anything other than one of us (I heard of a minister who told his congregation that although first-century Jews reclined on couches to eat the Passover, he was sure that Jesus and his disciples would have sat properly on chairs at a table). When the English Church exported English Christianity to the nations, we created the very problems from which our Asian brothers are now seeking to extricate themselves. Hudson Taylor was one of the few who recognised that danger, and therefore chose to adopt the Chinese culture, wearing Chinese clothes and growing his hair in a pigtail.

History repeating itself

I have a friend who saw Rolex watches on sale for $40 in a Thai street market. To his untrained eye, they looked like the real McCoy but when he asked if the watch in his hand was really a Rolex, he was told it was “a genuine Thai Rolex watch”. I understand why Christians on the Indian subcontinent do not wish to further alienate and antagonise their Muslim neighbours. But to jettison the Jewish Jesus in favour of “genuine Indian Jesus” is to substitute one error for another and ultimately to create problems further down the line. Asian Christian leaders need to think the issue through more carefully. I understand why our Chinese brothers want a “genuine Chinese Christianity” but they, like the rest of us, must resist the temptation to improve on the original product. The elect of all nations are genuinely Christian but the Faith itself can never be genuinely anything other than Jewish. God chose a people and created a culture through which he would reveal himself to the world. It is nothing short of arrogance to think that the cultural milieu in which the Bible came to us and in which Jesus lived and taught is irrelevant.

Chinese and Indian Christian leaders want believers in thee Chinese and Indian diasporas to evangelise among the nations where they are spread. If for the sake of expediency, however, Chinese Christians proclaim a “Chinese” gospel or Indian believers export an “Asian” Jesus, they will be repeating the mistakes made by Western missionaries of a former age.

God chose the Jewish people for a reason (and it was not personal merit or worth on their part). He did not choose to reveal himself to the world through the English (even if we might like to think he should have) or an Asiatic or African people. The inevitable result of any nation making exclusive claims to Jesus is the dejudaising of Jesus.

Not only, but also

If Jesus is in a real sense “universal”, does it matter that he was a Jew? Yes it does; Jesus told the woman at the well outside Sychar that salvation – in Hebrew, Yeshua – is “of the Jews”. If we dejudaise Jesus, the message of the Bible will become less intelligible. It is quite common to hear that the books of the Old Testament are “Christian” and not “Jewish”. If by that we mean the Hebrew Scriptures speak of “Christ” then of course the Old Testament is “Christian” but it was written by Jewish prophets and addressed primarily to the Jewish nation. In those Scriptures God promised to bless the families of the earth through the seed of Abraham and to bless the nations through the Jewish nation; the Messiah was to be the descendant of Israel’s greatest king and was to be born in the homeland of the Jewish people, and the Covenant that assures Christians of their eternal salvation was promised to “the house of Israel and the house of Judah”. Without wishing to appear pedantic, we ought to say the Old Testament is not only Jewish but is also Christian. Let’s not rob the Jews of their Scriptures.

If Jesus is the “Christ of Christianity” or even the “Saviour of the world” but not the Messiah of Israel, or if his Jewishness is a mere happenstance of history, the Jewish people become marginalised and irrelevant. That view of the Jews strengthens the case for Replacement Theology, which in turn tends to diminish concern for Jewish mission, which in turn hinders the coming of the glorious day when “all Israel shall be saved” (Rom 11:26), an event which will be “life from the dead” for all nations (Rom 11:15).

This article was first published in the Herald in Summer 2010

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