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Chapter 6. Christianity has Lost its Jewish Roots—the Serious Consequences

Chapter 6

Christianity has Lost its Jewish Roots: The Serious Consequences

Christianity has lost its Jewish roots

The church we see in the book of Acts was a Jewish church in the 30s and 40s of the first century thriving through God’s dynamic power and under Jewish leadership. One of the most vigorous and learned among these first leaders was, of course, the Apostle Paul, the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13); he is the chief figure in the Book of Acts, and his evangelistic activities are the sub­ject of most of that book. But Gentile Christians appear to have forgotten not only that he was a Jew, but how Jewish he was, and how proud he was of it. In a recent book, Garry Wills (Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern University, Illinois) does a good job of remind­ing his readers of this fact:

There is no more Semitic a Semite than Paul. ‘If one relies on lineage, I can do so more than others—circumcised on the eighth day, by race a man of Israel, by tribe of Benjamin, Hebrew from Hebrews, in Law a Pharisee, in dedication a persecutor of the gathering [the church], in vindication under the Law a man faultless’ (Phil 3:4-6). ‘For Jewish­ness I out­stripped many contemporaries of my own lineage, extreme in my zealous preservation of the patriarchs’ traditions’ (Gal 1:14). Paul is just as Jewish as Jewish can be … He boasts only of his Jewish roots and observance. (What Paul Meant, Penguin, 2006, p.129,130).

Clearly, Paul did not desert his Jewish roots when he became a follower of Messiah Jesus. A fundamental defining mark of the Jew was his mono­theism, and Paul was as monotheistic as any monotheist, as is perfectly clear from his letters (Rom.16:27; 1Cor.8:6; 8:4; Rom.3:30; Eph.1:3; 3:14; 4:6; 1Tim.1:17; 2:5, etc). As apostle to the Gentiles, Paul saw his mission as being that of bring­ing Gentiles into “the common­wealth of Israel” through faith in Jesus Christ (Eph.2:12); they thereby become members of “the Israel of God” (Gal.6:16).

But within a hundred years, the church had evolved from being under dedicated Jewish leadership to becoming a predominantly Gentile church under Gentile leaders. A quantum shift had taken place. The church was now composed of people from a polytheistic background who lacked the ardent com­mitment to monotheism which is char­acteristic of the Jews. It soon became apparent that the Gentile church was not particularly averse to adding one or two more per­sons to the Godhead, while nominally acknowledging the mono­theistic character of the faith and the Scriptures (both Old and New) that they had inherited from the Jewish church.

The Gentile church proceeded boldly with the process of the deification of Christ in spite of the fact that they could not find one verse in their New Testa­ment which plainly stated that Jesus is God. The fact that trinitarian­ism could find nothing in the NT that sup­ported them is hardly surprising given the fact that all except one (i.e. Luke) of the writers of the New Testament were Jews. Little wonder that the Nicene Creed, which had become determinative for the (Gentile) Christian church, and in which Jesus is raised to full deity so as to be coequal with the Father, does not quote a single verse in support of this new dogma.

Most Christians to this day are unaware of just how feeble the Biblical foundation of trinitarianism is. The Scriptural situation for trinitarian­ism, where the New Testament is concerned, is put clear­ly and concisely by J.H. Thayer: “Whether Christ is called God must be determined from John 1:1; 20:28; 1 John 5:20; Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8f, etc.; the matter is still in dispute among theolog­ians.” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon, under θεὸς, sec.2, emphasis added). Yes, 1700 years after the Nicene Creed had been established as official church dogma, Christian theolo­gians are still unable to ascertain whether Christ can be called God according to the New Testament! To put the situation in another way, whether Jesus can be called God depends on the interpretation of a small number of verses, but the validity or correct­ness of these inter­pretations is disputed.

This situation was the inevitable result of the church’s having lost its connection to its Jewish roots. How could one extract trinitar­ianism from the monotheistic writings of the New Testament? Voluminous efforts expended in countless books and articles could not accomplish this. All that could be (and has been) done was to impose interpretations on the unyield­ingly monotheistic writings that are fundamentally incom­patible with them. These interpretat­ions, sitting insecurely on founda­tions that will not sup­port them, can be easily overturned. Is it not time for the church to return to its mono­theistic Jewish foundation rather than continue to try to build on a foundation that is incom­patible with it?

The church received God’s revelation of Himself as recorded in the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament. What most Christ­ians today don’t know is that the early church had no other Bible except “the Old Testament”. What was circulated in the early churches were some letters, such as those written by the apostles Peter and Paul, originally writ­ten to specific churches whose names are still attached to them. Some churches may have had one or more of the four gospels we now have. Not until the late 2nd century were these letters and gospels collected together into something like our present NT.

What all this means is that the early church was built up on the solid foundat­ion of the monotheism of “the earlier Scriptures,” the Hebrew Bible. The NT writings are likewise firmly built on the found­ation of the OT as its many allusions to, and quotations from, the OT show. The inex­tricably close relationship between the ear­lier and the later Scriptures, between the Old and the New Testa­ments, finds expression in the saying, “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed”.

What we learn in the OT is that God created the world and chose a line of faithful individuals through whom He worked out His plans for mankind. God began to reveal Himself to these persons, and through them to the world. He then chose the people of Israel, not because they were a great nation but precise­ly because of their insig­nificance among the nations (Dt.7:7). This exempli­fies the way God works as enunciated in 1Corinthians 1:27, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong”.

Jesus, God’s uniquely “chosen one” (Lk.9:35), was a Jew and so were all his apostles. The first Christian church in Jerusalem was made up of Jews. But the destruction of Jerusalem and of the tem­ple in AD 70 by the Roman armies, together with further uprisings, resulted in the end of Israel as a nation for almost 1900 years. The short-lived Bar Kochba upris­ing against the Romans was put down in AD 135, with even harsher con­sequences for the Jewish peo­ple in Palestine. The gospel, however, through the missionary efforts of Paul and others, had already been spread far and wide in the Roman Empire. But one result was that the church by the latter part of the 2nd century had become a predom­inantly non-Jewish church which quickly lost its connections to its Jewish roots. Its leaders had grown up in the religious and cultural atmosphere of paganism and polytheism. Those who had some degree of education had already drunk deeply from the fountains of Greek religious and philosophical ideas. These ideas had shaped their minds, and would prove to be difficult to unlearn even when they became Christians. This would, inevitably, have pro­found conse­quences when it came to formulat­ing doctrines. The doc­trine of the Trinity, established as the official dogma of the Gentile church 300 years after Christ, is an almost natural product of this series of events, beginning with the separation of the church from its Jewish origin.

The Bible was now being read as though it were a trinitarian book instead of what it really was: a monotheistic one. Every effort was made to find trin­itarian proof-texts in the New Testament, even though practically not­hing could be found in the Old Testament for this purpose. Accord­ingly, NT texts were often given a trinitarian meaning without proper reference to their OT background. Even today, OT scholarship and NT scholarship function as separate domains (perhaps thanks also to this age of specialization) such that there ap­pears to be little interaction between the two. Years ago I met an acquaint­ance at a library in Cambridge where he was completing a doctorate in some OT subject. He asked me what I was doing at that time. When I told him that I was studying some questions in the NT, he smiled and said, “Oh, I didn’t think there were any questions left in the NT to study!” Of course he said this jokingly, but that the idea would even cross his mind that there may be no more questions left to study seemed at least to indicate that he did not really know what those questions might be.

The church’s separation from its Jewish roots meant that it no longer knew the religious and cultural atmosphere of the time of Christ and his apostles, or of those who wrote the NT. Most Christ­ians today don’t even know what Jesus’ mother tongue was, or in what language he taught, be­cause they have no idea what was the spoken language in Palestine in Jesus’ time. Most have not even heard of the word “Aramaic,” let alone know that this was the language which Jesus spoke in his daily life because this was the language spoken in the land of Israel at that time, and for about 500 years before that.

Even in the world of New Testament scholarship, insufficient attent­ion has been paid to Aramaic. After all, most theological semin­ary grad­uates have scarcely attained even an elementary knowledge of Hebrew, let alone Aramaic, a related but different Semitic language.

But the appreciation for the importance of Aramaic began to change in NT scholarship with the discoveries at Qumran beginning in 1947, when it was found that substantial parts of the Qumran writings were in Aramaic. Also around that time the discovery was made of a complete Aramaic Targum; previously only portions were available. “Targum” is the Aramaic word for “translation,” and the Targums were translations into Aramaic of the Hebrew Bible. These translations became necessary because from the time of Ezra and Nehemiah the people who returned from the Exile could no longer speak Hebrew. Having lived in exile for several decades, they spoke the Aramaic language of the lands in which they lived. This is a situation which is replicated by the Jews today who have lived in foreign countries for generations, very few of whom are able to speak Hebrew. When I went to Israel to learn Hebrew in my student days, most of those in my language class were Jews who had come to learn the language of their early forefathers.

Certainly, the importance of Aramaic for the understanding of the NT was known to a relatively small number of scholars (Wellhausen, Burney, M. Black, and others) already before the above mentioned discoveries. But it did not re­ceive the attention it deserved until the impetus given by those new discoveries. Scholars such as M. McNamara (Targum and Testament) have made significant contrib­utions in this direction. Some examples of these con­tributions are given expression by a group of scholars in their studies published in The Aramaic Bible, ed. D.R.G. Beattie and M.J. McNamara, JSOT Press, 1994.

One of the articles in The Aramaic Bible is titled “The Aramaic Background of the New Testament” by Prof. Max Wilcox. Of the many points he makes at the conclusion of his article, one is that “the material from the Targumim [Heb. for Targums] and from Qumran should be utilized to the full” (p.377; italics and explanation in brackets added). This is precisely what we intend to do when we come to the crucial study of the “Word” (logos in Greek; memra in Aramaic) in John 1:1 and other verses where applicable. But first we need to gain a better understanding of the significance of Aramaic for the study of the Scriptures.

The extremely serious spiritual consequences of the shift away from the Jewish mother church

Few Christians today seem to be aware of the fact that all churches that claim to be “Christian” grew out of the first church at Jerusalem which can, therefore, be appropriately called “the Jewish mother church”. We have an account in the first several chapters of the book of Acts about how that church came into being at Pentecost in or about the year AD 33. The trag­edy is that the mother church would be unable to recognize her “children” if she were to see them as they are today. In regard to the matter of prayer, for example, there is no doubt whatever that the Jewish church knew God only as the one true God, and prayed to Him alone and absolutely no one else. The words of Deuteronomy 10:17 would have characterized their concept of the only God: “For Yahweh your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God”; that is to say in the strongest possible terms that Yahweh alone is the one true God. This was epitomized in the Shema (Deut.6:4) which was central to their faith and could never be compromised. The New Jerusalem Bible rightly ex­presses the spirit of the Shema: “Listen, Israel: Yahweh our God is the one, the only Yahweh.”

What, therefore, would the shock and horror of the Jerusalem mother church be if they could see the non-Jewish churches today? They would find some Christians praying to “God the Father,” who is no longer the only God because to them there are two other persons who are equally God besides him. They would find most Christians praying to and worship­ping Jesus, who is one of the two persons besides “the Father,” and who himself is now “God the Son”. What has happened to the church? Or is this really the church? It now has nothing of spiritual substance in common with the Jerusalem church; almost everything has been changed or distorted.

The early Jewish church certainly loved and honored Jesus as God’s servant (pais, Acts 3:13,26; 4:25,27,30), a title found prim­arily in the early chapters of Acts and was apparently their preferred way of referring to him. But it would have been incon­ceivable to them that Jesus would have been worshipped along­side Yahweh and on the same level with Him. They saw Jesus as their Savior and friend, whom they could approach as their great high priest who intercedes for them with Yahweh at “the throne of grace” (Heb.4:16). But the Jews did not pray to the high priest, but only to Yahweh, who was “enthroned above the cherubim,” or in the words of king Hezekiah’s prayer, “O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, who is enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone” (Isa.37:16; 2Ki.19:15; 1Chr.13:6; cf. Heb.9:5). We have a record of how the Jerusalem church prayed in a time of crisis: “they lifted their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them…’”, and it is in this prayer that Jesus is twice referred to as “your holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:27,30). King David is referred to by the same word “servant” (pais, v.25). They honored Jesus as both “Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36), but their prayers were not add­ressed to him; they prayed only to the God who alone is God.

Prayer was not made to Jesus in the NT

This fact should be considered decisive against any argument for Jesus’ deity. The Jerusalem church both knew and de­clared that “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36), but the prayers of this spirit­ually dynamic church were directed to God, not to Jesus.

When Stephen was being stoned to death, he committed his departing spirit to Jesus’ care (Acts 7:59). Shortly before this he had a vision in which he saw Jesus standing in attendance at the right hand of God as “the Son of man” (Acts 7:56). No matter how exalted a being “the Son of man” might be, no Jewish believer would have prayed to a man, which is essentially what “the son of man” means in both Hebrew and Aramaic. So Stephen’s in­teraction with the resurrected Jesus is not something on the level of praying to God. It is at most on the level of communicating with a heavenly being in much the same way that John conversed with the angel in the Revelation. This was not some­thing unfamiliar to the Jewish mind. Consider, for example, the ex­tended story of The Rich Man and Lazarus told by Jesus in Luke 16:19-31. Whatever may be the genre and nature of this story (that is, whether it is factual or not, which does not concern us here), in it Jesus describes how when the rich man died, his spirit departed to Hades and was in torment. There he looked up and saw Abraham. He pleaded with Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him a little “water” to cool his “tongue”; but since the rich man is no longer in the body, clearly “water to cool the tongue” is metaphor­ical for relief of his spiritual torment. But we need not here discuss the details of this story. The only point of relevance for us here is whether this “prayer” to Abraham constitutes prayer according to the NT, and exactly how it differs from Step­hen’s “prayer” to Jesus. As far as the Scriptures are concerned, pray­er (properly so called) was addressed only to God, “the only God” (Jn.5:44).

It would be absurd to suggest that Jesus taught, by that story, that people should pray to Abraham in time of need. Yet a substantial part of the Christian church endorses “praying” to the saints; and though Abraham is not a “saint” of the church, yet since praying to a saint is praying to a human being, then praying to Abraham should not be a problem for this part of the church. But since the NT church addressed prayer only to God, Jesus’ story of Lazarus should not be used in the church in support of prayer to the saints. Moreover, a major doctrine about prayer cannot be based upon one story. The rich man in Hades made a plea to Abra­ham (for those in Hades without access to God, whom else could they plead with?), but not every plea or request is a prayer.

In Stephen’s case, being a follower of Jesus he had already committed his life to following Jesus and did not need to plead to be accepted again; he was now faithfully following Jesus right into heaven, and giving notice of his com­ing to him with the words “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). A much fuller commun­ication was that between Jesus and Saul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3-7). In another instance, Jesus communi­cated a message of assur­ance to Paul at Corinth in a vision at night (Acts 18:9,10), but this was appar­ently a one way communication. The point is that there is simply nothing in the book of Acts that can be cited as evidence for praying to Jesus. The same is true for the whole NT. If the Apostolic church thought of Jesus as God, then this fact is totally inexplicable. “Maranatha” or “Come, Lord Jesus” (1Cor.16:22; Rev.22:20) are prayers only if every invitation to “come” is considered a prayer.

Is there anyone here who prays to Yahweh?

This was a question I asked a room full of pastors and preachers. No one raised his or her hand. Yahweh has effectively been elimi­nated from Christian­ity. Is this a matter for concern? There is no cause for con­cern if salvation does not matter to us. But what do the Scriptures say?

Romans 10:13: “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

Acts 2:20: “The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. 21 And it shall come to pass that every­one who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

These are quotations of Joel 2:31,32: “The sun shall be turned to dark­ness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awe­some day of the Lord (Yahweh) comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord (Yahweh) shall be saved.”

But do we realize that the statement in Romans 10:13 (and Acts 2:20), which concerns the weighty matter of eternal salvation, refers to calling on Yahweh? And does Yahweh have any place at all in the prayers, thoughts, and lives of Christians today? Has not Yahweh been practically eliminated from Christianity? Has not even the Name “Yahweh” become foreign to us (some­what like “Allah”)? How has this come about?

Christianity today has made itself into a self-contained pack­age or system which does not need Yahweh; He is, for all practical pur­poses, quietly and politely set aside by this system. Within this system, Christ is everything, he is center and circumference. He is the object of prayer and worship, for he is the one who came into the world out of love for us, and proved this by giving himself for us; he rose from the dead and took his place of honor beside the Father. By his suffering and the blood of his cross he secured the salvation of all who have faith in him and call on his name. He is coming again to reign upon the earth together with those who are faithful to him, his saints. This is the trinitarian doctrinal “package”.

Actually, what did the Father do for our salvation, apart from sending Jesus into the world to die? Or did He really need to send him? Was not Jesus more than willing to come, whether or not he was sent? But at least the Father did raise him from the dead, or was even that necessary? For does not the Scripture say that death could not keep God’s “holy one” in its grip (Ps.16:10; Acts 2:27ff); that being the case, would not death be obliged to release him because death could have no hold on the sinless one? More­over, does Scripture not also say that Jesus is “the everlasting Father” (Isa.9:6)? So the Son is also the Father!

Thus in this Christocentric, Christ-all-sufficient system, what need is there for the Father, beyond merely acknowledging His exist­ence? After all, without the Father there could be no Trinity; indeed, without the Son there could also be no Trinity. As for the Holy Spirit in this Christo-centric system, he is for all practical purposes an extension of Christ, for is he not called “the Spirit of Christ” (Rom.8:9) or “the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Phil.1:19)?

In trinitarianism, Christ is coeternal and coequal with the Father in every respect, but if that is the case, then it would not be easy to explain why he is called “God the Son,” for a son derives his being from his father. Or perhaps it is just because he was called “the son of God” on earth, so the title “the Son” is applied to him retroactively into eternity because there is no other convenient title available. After all, did not Jesus himself speak of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Mt.28:19)?

Since Jesus is coeternal and coequal with the Father in trinitarianism, it logic­ally follows that when we use the word “God” it does not necess­arily refer to the Father. So when we talk about “God,” or read about God in the OT, it could just as well be referring to Jesus.

From the moment the church declared Jesus to be God, they inevitably made the Father redundant. If Jesus is both God and man, he would clearly mean more to us than one who is “only” God and not man. We can relate to a God who is also man far better than one who is only God, for we feel that we can identify with him because of his humanity. This God-man, therefore, relates to us as man, and is all sufficient as God, so what use does the trini­tarian have for the Father who does not have the advan­tage of being human like the God-man Jesus? So for all prac­tical purposes, in trinitarianism we can forget about the Father. In any case, Christians don’t really know who the Father is and are not concerned about this, because Christ is His image, and this image is more than adequate for them.

Moreover, is not the total sufficiency of Christ for everything in the Christ­ian life and for salvation summed up in the words “Christ is all and in all” in Colossians 3:11?

But the answer to this question is, exegetically speaking, a definite “No, it does not support this trinitarian Christ-all-sufficient system of doctrine.” Look at Colossians 3:11 in full, “Here (that is, in the new man, v.10) there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircum­cised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” This verse addresses specifically the question concern­ing relation­ships, especially that of Jew and Gentile, in the church. In the “new man,” which is the church with Christ as its head, there are no ethnic, cultural, or social distinctions of any kind, because here Christ is everything that matters to everyone—which is what “all in all” means. It is specifically within the context of the new man that Christ is all in all.

Ephesians 2:15 addresses the same issue (also Acts 15:5ff) with the words, “that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two (Jew and Gentile), so making peace”. Christ is all that matters in the con­text of all relat­ionships within the church. This same point is reaffirmed in Galat­ians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” All this makes it perfectly clear that “Christ is all” is a statement made in the context of relation­ships within the church, especial­ly that between Jew and Gentile, and is therefore misapplied when made into a universal or cosmic principle. Ultimately, Yahweh God alone will be “all in all” (1Cor.15:28).

The other reason for failing to understand verses like Colossians 3:11 cor­rectly is that Gentiles, generally having an in­adequate found­ation in the OT, usually have little appreciation for the significance of the Messiah in Scripture. And though “Christ,” like “Messiah,” means “Anointed One,” the significance of this has also evaporated. No Jew could have thought of the Messiah as God, yet Gentiles can readily declare that “Jesus Christ is God” without hesitation. Here is Colossians 3:11 according to the ancient Syriac Peshitta (Murdock), “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, nei­ther circumcision nor uncircum­cision, neither Greek nor barbar­ian, neither bond nor free; but the Messiah is all, and in all.”

The loss of Jewish roots meant the loss of pure monotheism, resulting in the trinitarian corruption of the concept of God

What does “God” mean in trinitarianism? Well, it could refer to the Father, or the Son, or the Spirit, or any combination of them (e.g. Father and Son), or all three persons together. The God of trinitarianism is not a person, not even a “person” in some generalized sense because “he” refers to the “sub­stance” of which the three persons consist. To speak of a substance as “he” is contrary to language and logic, for a sub­stance is an “it”. So trinitarianism has reduced “God” to an “it”.

Moreover, since God consists of three persons, he (or rather “it”) should be spoken of as “they,” as would be true of speaking of more than one person in any language. Trinitarianism has so cor­rupted the meaning of the word “God” that when a trinitarian speaks of God one does not know exactly who he is talking about (i.e. which of the three persons); but in most instances he is likely to be talking about Christ. It is not uncommon for Christians to pray to Jesus and then end their prayer “in Jesus’ name”!

This fuzzy concept of “God,” allegedly derived from the NT, stands in complete contrast to the God revealed in the Bible, who revealed His Name as “Yahweh”. There is simply nothing in the OT that can properly be called “evidence” in support of “three persons in the Godhead”. If Christians are to be delivered out of their doctrinal fog, they will have to see that their God is simply not Yahweh. And if they wish to equate Yahweh with “the Father” of trinitarianism, then they should realize that Yahweh has no co-equal “Son,” and that His Spirit is not a distinct person from Him. One can certainly call Him “Father,” but not in the trinitarian sense of the word. Sadly, trinitarianism has corrupted even the use of “Father” such that one has to define in which sense the word is being applied to God.

And the same is true in regard to “Son,” a term which is applied to the Messiah (meaning God’s “anointed one”) in Psalm 2:2, and with refer­ence to whom Yahweh declares, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you” (v.7). “Today” marks an event in time, not eternity (“eter­nally begotten”), and this event is mentioned in the previous verse, “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” Yahweh appoints His mess­ianic king to reign over all the nations of the world, even to “the ends of the earth” (v.8ff). This is the basis of Jesus’ state­ment in Matthew 28:19f. So the term “Son” des­cribes the Messiah, and not an “eternal Son”.

The church needs to return to Yahweh and put an end to all distort­ions of the concept of God. Only so can we be delivered from the evil of falsehood and return to the truth which is found only in Yahweh. “I the Lord (Yahweh) speak the truth; I declare what is right” (Isaiah 45:19). “Teach me your way, O Lord (Yahweh), that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name” (Psalm 86:11).

Because the words “God” and “Father” have been corrupted by trinitarian­ism, these terms need to be redefined when the intention is to refer to “the one true God” (John 17:3). Trinitarianism has even robbed us of the vocabulary with which to correctly refer to the only God! Biblical monotheism cannot be expressed by means of trinitar­ian termi­nology. How then are we now to refer to Him? Is there any better way than to return to calling on His Name again as “Yahweh”? This may offend some Jews, who have made the pronouncing of His Holy Name taboo accord­ing to their tradition—in spite of the fact that their Scriptures instruct them to call on His Name, also commanding them to “swear (i.e. take their solemn oaths) by His Name” (Deut.6:13). Therefore when relating to the Jews, one could use their preferred metonym “Adonai” when refer­ring to Yahweh; in any case, to religious Jews, when talking about the Bible, the word “God” generally refers to Yahweh. People should be free to speak of “Yahweh” or “Adonai”.

There is actually no reason why it is necessary to abide by the man-made prohibition of speaking the Name “Yahweh”. The prohibit­ion is to be rejected because it is un-Biblical as is evident from the obvious fact that the Bible itself delights in abundant refer­ences to His Name—some 7000 refer­ences in all! It makes no sense whatever to argue that the Name should not be used for fear of misuse when the Scriptures use it with such frequency that “Yahweh” appears several times on almost every page. If anyone brought forward the argument that we should not use money, or a car, or anything else for fear of misusing it, we would surely regard such an argument as quite absurd. Similarly, I doubt that anyone in the United Kingdom would consider it sensible to suggest that speaking the name “Elizabeth” should be prohibited for fear of insulting her majesty the Queen. On the contrary, do we not delight in speaking the name of the one we love—like the proud father who delights to speak of his son or daughter? It seems to me that this is one of the reasons why the Name of Yahweh appears so frequently in the Scriptures—His people delight in speaking His Name.

Getting to the root of the matter: “Their olive tree”—and ours

But the matter goes even deeper. Jesus summed it up con­cisely in the words, “salvation is from the Jews” (Jn.4:22). This is not an ethnically motivated state­ment, but a state­ment about spiritual reality, as Jesus said, “My words, they are spirit and they are life” (Jn.6:63). To understand his words on the level of the flesh is to misun­derstand them. In John’s gospel, Jesus is stern with the Jews because of their obstinate unbelief (a stern­ness also expressed by the great prophets of the OT); because of this some scholars have alleged anti-Semitism in John. But the succinct statement that “salvation is from the Jews” (Jn.4:22) effectively shatters such an allegation. The spiritual point of the reference to the Jews as the conduit of God’s salvation is to put into focus the “salvation history” delineated in the Old Testament. Moreover, the Jews are not a merely dispensable channel of sal­vation in the sense that once we have received salvat­ion through the Jews, we can dis­pense with them. “Salvation” and “Jews” are linked in such a way that to be severed from the Jewish “tree” is to be severed from salvation. Let us consid­er this matter carefully from the Scriptures.

In Romans 11, Paul portrays the people of God as an olive tree whose roots stretch back in Biblical antiquity to Abraham and ear­lier; these godly men together constitute a holy root (Rom.11:16), rooted in a deep relation­ship with Yahweh God. Jews are branches of this olive tree, but because of their unbelief some of them were broken off by God (v.17); but the believing Jews, including Paul and the members of the early Jewish Church, remain a part of the tree. The breaking off of the unbelieving “branches,” even if many, did not mean that God had rejected Israel as His people. It was with this very fact that Paul started this portion of his letter: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descend­ant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” (Rom.11:1,2) In God’s wisdom and mercy, the breaking off of the unbeliev­ing branches created an opening into which believing Gentiles could be grafted into the olive tree; this olive tree repres­ents the peo­ple whom God has chosen, also called “the elect” (Rom.11:5,7). In this way “through their trespass, salvat­ion has come to the Gentiles” (Rom.11:11).

But with this gracious provision of salvation for the Gentiles comes a stern warning in Romans 11:

17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nour­ishing root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.

Salvation is portrayed as being grafted into the olive tree and drawing spiritual life and nourishment from its root. A branch stays alive only so long as it remains firmly grafted in the tree; no branch can survive being cut off from the tree. To remain in this tree is life; to be cut off from it is death. Jesus, the “deliverer” or “redeemer,” is an essential part of this tree (cf. Rom.11:26; Isa. 59:20, etc); therefore, to be united with Christ through faith is another way to explain how one is grafted into the tree. That is why in John 15:1ff Jesus also speaks in terms of a vine and its branches. Graft­ing is a regular procedure in viticulture; it is Yahweh God who grafts in or cuts off, because He is the “vine­dresser”. As Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” (Jn.15:1). He also warned that unfruitful branches could be cut off and thrown away, “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (Jn.15:6, NIV); but “who­ever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (v.5).

What all this means is that to be cut off from the spiritual “olive tree” (or “vine,” cf. Isa.5:1-7) of Israel is to be cut off from salvation, whether he be Jew or Gentile, which is precisely what Paul warns could happen, and has happened to unbelieving Jews (Rom.11:22). Here is the whole passage:

19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbe­lief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, pro­vided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.

In spite of these perfectly plain statements, there is no lack of Christ­ians, especially in certain Protestant circles, who maintain that they cannot be cut off from salvation under any circumstance! How blind can one be even in the light of the clear language of Scripture?

On the other hand, those Jews who are willing to return to their God will be grafted back into the olive tree:

23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.

Notice these last words, “their olive tree,” for it was theirs by God’s grace in the first place, although it also becomes the Gentile’s by God’s grace, by their being grafted into it through faith; for it is through faith that we become mem­bers of “the Israel of God” (Gal.6:16). When we are grafted into the olive tree through faith, then “their olive tree” also becomes our olive tree.

Galatians 3 7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham … 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s off­spring, heirs according to promise.

Romans 2 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one in­wardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

Romans 4 12 (The purpose was) to make him (Abraham) the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

Romans 9 6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.

Philippians 3 3 For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.

Can we grasp what the Apostle is saying in all these passages? Is he not declaring that it is through faith that a person becomes a des­cendant of Abraham, and “heirs according to promise” (Gal.3:29)? It is by faith, not physical descent, that one becomes a child of God. Being a Jew is not a mat­ter of race or religion but “a matter of the heart” (Rom.2:29), so being an Israelite is not a matter of physical descent from Israel; to belong to Israel is a matter of being “children of the promise” (Rom.9:8) through faith. So he tells the Philippians, a proport­ion of whom are Gentiles, that “we are the real circumcis­ion”. “Circumcision” is another word used to describe Jews (Eph.2:11; Col.4:11; Rom.3:30; 4:9, etc), so Paul is saying to the Philippians, “you and I, we are the real Jews”.

The point is that the true believer (and not just any Christian) is the real Jew before God, the spiritual Jew whose praise comes from God, not man (Rom. 2:29). Becoming a believer is to become a true Israelite, a real Jew! Little won­der that Paul declared that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal.3:28; Col.3:11)—there are only real Israelites, the true descendants of Abraham (Gal.3:29), the heirs of God’s promises, the chosen people of God, the spiritual Jews! In the church of God there are only spiritual Israel­ites, all of whom are circumcised in heart (Rom.2:28,29; Phil.3:3) even though not all were circum­cised in the flesh. James Dunn, in his large commentary on the Greek text of Romans, puts this in theological language when he writes of “the Christian Gentile rejoicing in the gift of the eschato­logical Spirit—the eschatological Jew is Gentile as well as Jew!” (Romans, Word Biblical Comment­ary, p.125, on Rom. 2:28,29).

The Apostle Peter wrote to encourage persecuted believers by remind­ing them that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may pro­claim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his mar­velous light” (1Pet.2:9). In this verse the terms applied to Israel in the OT are applied to the church (still largely made up of Jews when 1Peter was written); what Peter writes echoes a pass­age like Deuter­onomy 7:6, “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possess­ion, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (cf. Mal.3:17, etc).

It should now be clear that when speaking about “Jewish roots” we are not speaking primarily about Judaism in its various forms but in particular about the Scriptures which the Jews have zealously guarded, preserved, and trans­mitted with utmost care through the centuries. Their unwavering commit­ment to the word of God and to monotheism is something which should put the church to shame. The Jewish root is the rich spiritual herit­age made available to us, above all through the Jewish Scriptures.

It must be remembered that Islam, too, grows out of this same Jewish root, which is visible everywhere in the Qur’an. The Qur’an freely acknow­ledges the Jewish Scriptures and also the gospel as being the word of God. Muslims, too, acknowledge themselves to be the descendants of Abraham.

Yahweh has chosen in His wisdom and kindness to provide life through the Jewish root. We do well to remember that no branch can survive if it is severed from the tree. If we now realize, even if we have never realized it before, that we are the true Israelites, the real Jews, then why would we want to be severed from the olive tree into which God has graciously grafted us?

That Gentiles had become Jews through conversion was something the Jews were familiar with; it was through the process of prosely­tizing (i.e. con­vert­ing people to Judaism) that Gentiles entered into the Jewish religion. This was ac­complished through the vigorous missionary efforts of Judaism. Jesus pointed to the missionary zeal of the Pharisees who “travel over land and sea to win a single convert” (Mt.23:15). Anyone visiting Israel even today will see Jews who are black (e.g. from Yemen) as well as Jews who are white, both among its civilians as well as in the army. For the Jews, being a Jew was not exclusively or even primarily a matter of race but of religion. The New Test­ament concept differs from theirs not on the question on whether Gentiles can become Jews, but on how the transition is made; Paul pro­claims that it is through faith in Christ. This is stated clearly in Ephesians 2:

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circum­cision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separ­ated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth (or, citizenship, mem­bership) of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

In Christ, then, we are no longer “alienated from the people of Israel” (BDAG, politeias, re. Eph.2:12), but are now members of God’s elect people. “‘The Israel of God’ is still God’s covenant people… into whom believing Gentiles are being incorporated” (Dunn, Romans, p.540, on Rom.9:6). The profound consequence of this incorporation into Israel is that the Gentile, who is now a member of “the real circumcision” (Phil.3:3), is no longer a “stranger to the covenants of promise” (Eph.2:12), but becomes “the Gentile convert entering into Israel’s promised blessings” (Dunn, Romans, p.534, on Rom.9:4). Every­thing that God promised Israel becomes ours in Christ (2Cor.1:20). So Paul could say that in Christ “all things are yours” (1Cor. 3:21), such are the unim­ag­in­able riches of our inheritance: “as it is written: ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’” (1Cor.2:9, quoting Isa.64:4); so there is abundant cause to give “thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col.1:12).

Yet there are very few Christians today who realize that the true believer is “the real circumcision,” the true Israelite. This shows how completely discon­nected the Christian church is from its Jewish roots and from the New Testament teaching on this vital matter. Let us remember: no branch can survive once it is cut off from the tree and its roots—here we are, of course, speaking about spiritual life and survival. Little wonder that the Gentile church, having separ­ated from its Jewish roots, strayed into serious doc­trinal error. Error leads to death; it is time to realize this and to heed the word of God, to “come back to Yahweh your God, for he is gracious and compass­ionate, slow to anger, rich in faithful love, and he relents about inflicting disaster” (Joel 2:13). Yahweh, the God of Israel, is not only the God of the Jews but of all who belong to “the Israel of God” (Gal.6:16), God’s spiritual Israel. Sadly, most Christians scarcely know His Name, but the true Israelite will aim to love Him wholeheartedly (Mk.12:30, etc) and learn to honor His name, for “it is wonderful” (cf. Judges 13:18; Isaiah 28:29, etc).


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