Who is a Jew?
And why does this distinction still matter?

Martin Pakula investigates

I know what you’re thinking, it’s probably something like, “Who cares? Does the question ‘Who is a Jew?’ even matter? After all, we are all now one in Christ Jesus: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek ...’ (Gal 3:28). Why would anyone in the church care about who is Jewish or who is not? Also, the gospel is to go to all peoples and nations, Jews included; does it matter, then, who is Jewish? Why write an article on ‘Who is a Jew?’”
Why indeed! The short answer is that the Bible is interested in this question, and so we should be. The New Testament is careful with its terminology for the Jewish people. Take the word “Israel”, for example:

an exhaustive study of this word in the New Testament will, I believe, result in the conclusion that “Israel” refers only to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the Jewish nation or people. Nevertheless, many Christians believe that the church is the “new” Israel. In Romans 11:7, however, Paul says that “Israel” has not obtained salvation. Clearly, then, “Israel” is not the church, as the latter has obtained salvation. Instead, “Israel” refers to Paul’s people – the Jews, We must be careful with our terminology – as careful as the New Testament is.

I have sometimes heard well-meaning Gentiles say that we who believe in Jesus are now all “true” Jews. They base such statements on verses like Romans 2:29: “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter”, Gentiles have been circumcised in heart, so they must be Jews, right? Not so. Romans 2:29 is saying that being a Jew by outward circumcision alone doesn’t make someone a true Jew; a true Jew is a person who is outwardly circumcised and has the Spirit. The verse does not have Gentiles in view; a Gentile is not a Jew.

It is true, though, that we are now all one in Christ Jesus. Now, there is one new man in Christ (Eph 2:14-16). However, the verse in Galatians 3:28 quoted above is speaking about our status and salvation before God: Jews and Gentiles are justified alike by faith. There is no difference in salvation between a Jew and a Gentile. But that does not mean that all distinctions are abolished. Just as male and female still have distinctions in Christ, so too do Jews and Gentiles. When a Jewish person becomes a Christian, for instance, they do not cease to be a Jew. I have often said to fellow Christians, “I am Jewish”. They then correct me: “You mean you were: Jewish”. They are now guilty – unwittingly of course – of a sort of reverse Galatians heresy! In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, it is clear that the Gentiles are not to become Jews in order to be saved; Gentiles are saved as they are – as Gentiles – through faith in Christ. Similarly, Jews do not become Gentiles in order to be saved; Jews are saved as they are – as Jews – through faith in Christ. There are male Christians and female Christians, Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians.

Perhaps the confusion is over our definitions. A Jew is defined by birth: one is born Jewish. I was born Australian, male and Jewish. When I put my faith in Jesus I did not repent of being Australian, for being Australian is not a sin. I did not repent of being male either – or for being Jewish; being male or Jewish is not a sin. I am still Australian, still male, and still Jewish too. In the body of Christ, there are Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. We are one in Christ. But we are not the same. Romans 11:24 says that Jewish Christians are the “natural branches” grafted into “their own olive tree”, the church: Jews who turn to Christ are the natural heirs and recipients of the gospel. That is why the gospel is first for the Jew (Rom 1:16). Gentiles who turn to Christ are, by the amazing mercy of God, grafted in “contrary to nature”. Yet the gospel is for them too.

Why is this important? First it needs to be said that I am not a believer in pre-millennial dispensationalism. Reformed evangelical theology has long held the sort of views I have expressed here, but those views have been diluted since World War II. Also, in what I am saying, I am not rebuilding the Ephesians 2 “wall” that divided Jew and Gentile. Once Gentiles were included as equals in the church, the dividing wall was gone. However, just as we do not wish to abolish all distinctions between males and females, so also we should not wish to abolish all distinctions between Jews and Gentiles.

Why, then are the distinctions important? Firstly, such distinctions must be seen as important because they are there in the New Testament, and we should want to read our New Testaments properly.

Secondly, obliterating these distinctions is almost a matter of identity theft. Unwittingly, many Christians believe what almost amounts to an anti-Semitic theology. By denying Jewishness – or even by greatly downplaying it – or by claiming that the church is the new Israel, Jewish people are robbed of their identity. The result is we won’t think much of Jewish people in the church; they’re just one of the nations. However, Romans 2 makes it quite clear that they are God’s chosen people who still have a place in God’s present gospel purposes.

Third, our view of world mission will become distorted if we lose the impact of the New Testament terminology about Israel, the Jews. Many Christians have a “one box” view of mission rather than the New Testament’s “two box” view. The “one box” view looks out on the world and sees all the nations only: there is one box, containing all the nations to whom the gospel must go. The Jews are therefore included in the nations (which is ironic, given that the word used in Hebrew scriptures for nations means non-Jews or Gentiles). Since the Jews are a very small part of that box, numerically speaking, Jewish mission is given scant attention.

The New Testament, however, has a “two box” view of mission. There is the first box which is the Jewish nation, and the gospel goes first to them (Rom l:16). Then there is the second box: the nations, or non-Jews. The gospel is also for them (Rom 1:16). If we disenfranchise the Jews of their place in God’s purposes, we will no longer think of mission as being first to the Jew. Experience shows that this will mean that Jewish mission will be almost completely forgotten. No doubt there are other implications besides these.

I realize that it is often difficult for Gentile Christians to hear this biblical teaching. It can be misunderstood as saying that Jews are better than Gentiles. We are one in Christ Jesus, having the same status before God: Jews are not better than Gentiles! However, God made specific promises to one nation: Israel. He did not choose Israel because they were better, but because of his mercy. Similarly, he does not choose us to be saved – Jewish or Gentile Christians alike – because we are better, but because of his mercy. The new covenant does not abolish God’s promises to Israel. If God has removed his promises to Israel, there can be no assurance for Christians. How do we know he won’t do the same to us? Yet we know we have full assurance because the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Rom 11:29). He has not taken back his promises to Israel, but rather has fulfilled them in Jesus.

Paul chastises the Roman Christians for their Gentile arrogance and boasting (Rom 11:18,20). Many Gentile Christians think of the church as being Gentile, and are amazed that a Jew would become a Christian. However, the opposite view comes closer to the New Testament teaching: the church (the olive tree in Romans 11) is primarily Jewish. Gentiles are grafted into it by God’s mercy even though they are not the natural heirs and recipients of the gospel. This should produce profound gratitude and humility on the part of Gentile Christians. It is amazing that one who is not of Israel could come to inherit God’s great promises to that nation.

Many in the church have stopped thinking about the Jews as a people, and the importance of mission to the Jews. In other words, we have stopped thinking biblically. The church needs to study this topic again, and regain a biblical perspective: “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).

This is an edited version of an article which was first published in the March 2008 issue of The Briefing ( It is used by permission of the author and Matthias Media.

For those who would like to do further reading on this topic, Martin has also written a short booklet called First for the Jew: The Urgency of Jewish Mission Today which is published by the Bible College of Victoria (+61 3 9735 0011;;

This article first appeared in the Winter 2008 edition of the Herald

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