By the time the first century rolled around race was quite the hot button issue in Judaism. The Jewish people were living under Roman (read foreign/Gentile) oppression and occupation. Before that it was the Seleucids and before that the Ptolemies of Egypt. Under Seleucid rule they faced tremendous persecution for their faith by the notorious Antiochus Epiphanes that sparked the Maccabean revolt.
Antichochus was part of a larger movement to secularize and Hellenize Jerusalem. The goal was to make Palestine a more relevant and viable political and economic power. The fastest track to success on the world stage at that time was Hellenization (taking on more Greek culture – adopting the Greek language, adding agoras, a gymnasium, etc) that was met by stiff resistance by the Jews. In retribution for their resistance, Antiochus punished the Jews in Jerusalem by attacking the city and threatening death to any who observed Judaism (think circumcision, Kosher, etc). If that wasn’t enough, Antiochus defiled the temple in Jerusalem by offering pigs on the altar and dedicating it to Jupiter, allowing Gentiles to come to the temple and worship there. To make matters even worse the priesthood was also desecrated by taking it out of the lineage of Aaron and placing up for grabs to the highest and most corrupt Hellenized bidder. This was an all out effort to render Judaism obsolete and impossible to practice.
What was the result of all of this? This resulted in a zealous crystallization of Judaism…a resistance and uprising by Mattathias and Judas Maccabaeus. Mattathias was a priest who was ordered by the Seleucids to offer sacrifices to the Greek gods but refused. After refusing to do so himself he killed both the man who stepped forward to offer the sacrifice and the official who ordered it. The Maccabaen revolt had begun. This revolt would overthrow Seleucid rule, cleanse the temple, re-establish the priesthood and set in place the Hasmonean dynasty in 152 BC that had a priestly (think need for purity and holiness apart from the nations/Gentiles) emphasis in the new monarchy.
This had a tremendous impact on the Jewish psyche and identity. Purity and culture came to the forefront of their thinking as they had been so shamed by the Gentiles that they felt an ever pressing need to further insulate and inculcate themselves from Gentile culture and impurity. It is likely that around this same time came the rise of the Pharisees who were not priests themselves but who believed, as their name states, that God’s people were to be truly separate from the people of the world and the best way to do that was to impose priestly purity laws (normally used by priests in the temple) by people other than the priests outside the temple. Given the history stated above you can see why holiness and purity were important to them. The nations had proven themselves worthy of the separation their uncleanness warranted.
There were a number of other factors that weighed heavily on the Jews during the first century most of which played into the cultural/religious markers of Judaism (in other words markers of what made one Jewish) like circumcision, Kosher/dietary laws and holy days (Sabbath, Passover, etc). Each of these things put further racial and cultural tension on the Jewish people in the first century:
- Jews were monotheists living in a world of polytheism. What complicated matters even more was the syncretization of Roman Emperor worship with the regular mix of Greco-Roman gods and goddesses. In other words, it was one thing to be a monotheist when the gods were Zeus and Athena but quite another when being a monotheist was a rejection of the Emperor himself. Monotheism resulted in a rejection of civic/community events because the ceremony and celebration of the community often centered around worship to various gods. This led to the belief by the pagans that Jews were unpatriotic and that they didn’t have the best interest of the community at heart as they didn’t seek divine blessing of the local gods upon the community. Because of their rejection of all gods but the One true God they were seen as atheists.
- Circumcision was seen by the Gentiles as a barbaric act.
- Sabbath was seen as laziness.
- Kosher and table fellowship rules restricted them from the primary place of deep social connection in their world (both Jewish and Gentile), the table/table fellowship.
- The temple and the theological ties to Jerusalem and holiness/purity codes resulted in a group that was hard for polytheist pagans to govern with much rub.
Ever wonder why table fellowship with a Gentile was a big deal to a Jew? No wonder.
This is the backdrop for much of the racial divide we see reflected in part in the Gospels but more fully in Acts and the letters of Paul. There were hints that this chasm would be mended as far back as the covenant promises to Abraham, that he would be a blessing to the nations. We see hints of it in the Gospels where Jesus has other sheep, where the Gospel is spread by a once demon possessed man into the Decapolis and where Jesus himself is found in Gentile territory feeding the masses in the wilderness. The echoes of this racial and cultural reconciliation grow louder in the post-resurrection narratives we find in Luke’s writings. We catch is directly in Luke’s outline for the book of Acts in 1:8 where the Gospel is to be preached from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, even through Samaria (that is another racial/religious story for another day). It grows even louder in Acts 10 when Peter is told to kill and eat things he deemed unclean but were now being proclaimed clean and the principle given that what God calls clean is clean…followed by a knock on the door of some Gentile soldiers who want to take Peter to fellowship with a centurion named Cornelius. The final clue is given when the Holy Spirit comes upon Cornelius and his household just as it did on the disciples in Acts 2. God had clearly accepted them just as he had the Jews and both on the basis not of lineage but of faith.
As the list goes on and as we begin to dig a little harder into this from a scriptural/theological perspective what actually begins to emerge is that the issues they faced were racial in the sense that it was typically the descendants of Abraham who were the ones following Torah and being observant of these things and non-compliant toward pagan activities. At the same time this goes beyond race to the Jewish faith because not all Jews were descendants of Abraham…some were proselytized and evangelized in and so what we find here is the outgrowth of the original promise to Abraham coming to fruition in that God was starting something in and through Abraham’s descendants to be a blessing to all nations that finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit which was poured out on all flesh (Acts 2:17/Joel 2:28).
So what we see growing out of this, particularly as Jesus comes on the scene and the Gospel message goes beyond Jerusalem and Judea…into Samaria and to the ends of the earth is that faith doesn’t just supersede race…faith begins to reconcile the racial divide that had been demarcated by Torah/ritual impurity and the separation from which holiness required. In order for it to accomplish that task well, the commonality of faith must begin to deconstruct the traditional, cultural/racial walls that came with the holiness/purity codes of religious/cultural Judaism in favor of what should have unified all people from the beginning…the same type of faith that Abraham had before he was circumcised that was credited to him as righteousness.
This is where Gospel comes in. Jesus Christ, a descendant of Abraham, has opened the way to take all of the division and all of the impurity that once separated two groups (one as holy and pure and the other as unholy and impure) and made all clean…”do not call unclean what God has made clean.”
Paul says over and over that this is the very mystery of the Gospel, not how sins are to be forgiven or how we are to achieve or attain or receive eternal life…no, the mystery of the Gospel for Paul is how God has taken two desperate groups and unified them into one new humanity. Let’s let Paul say it for himself starting with Galatians,
“Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” – Gal 3:23-29
Now through Christ they are ALL children of God…not just the ones circumcised under the Law but all of those who have faith in Christ.
There are two key points I want to make in regard to this:
The first is that we breeze right over how absolutely stunning this statement is because we are not often familiar with their history and the actual enmity that came between Jews and Gentiles given the backstory mentioned above. We breeze right over this because we were not under the oppression and occupation of the Romans of whom Cornelius was a key player and now convert to Christ. We miss the BIGNESS and BOLDNESS of this unity because we don’t bleed and hurt as they bled and hurt and so the division that was present in their day is not as evident to us 2000 years later as free people who have never been slaved to anyone.
Here is how Paul said it in Ephesians,
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” – Eph 1:7-10
Bringing unity to all things very much includes racial reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles…let’s read on,
“11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—
2 Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” – Eph 2:11-3:6
Having the Lord’s supper in the home of a Gentile with Jews and Gentiles alike gathering around the table in non-hierarchical fashion in the Greco-Roman world was outrageous. It was a bold statement of defiance and of a new kind of living that was no longer defined by traditional boundary markers but defined instead by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. God had defanged the serpent. God had disarmed the powers. God had taken the wind out of the sails of the corrupt and arbitrary clean and unclean lines that had permeated society and had put the burden of who is clean and in and who is impure and out solely and solidly on his own shoulders, reminding us that we are not in the business of self-righteous discrimination against those who are different in our eyes and by our standards. No, it is Christ who is Lord and it is His wounds that heal us but also reconcile us because the One who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world. And so He has given us the ministry, not of division (although you might think that was the mission of some Christians) but of reconciliation…especially when it comes to race.
That doesn’t mean Jews and Jews and Gentiles aren’t Gentiles. Read Romans and see how Paul recognized that coming from either of those positions resulted in various advantages and disadvantages in his day. But it does not mean that we are in race-based hierarchical relationship for the very fact that we are amongst brothers, sisters and children of God where our value is attached exclusively to Jesus Christ. All other boasting is in vain!
Second and last is the application. Christ has reconciled two seemingly impossible groups to reconcile by the scandal of the cross. The question for us is this, how might we mimic the scandal of the cross to be a scandal today in reconciling things that seem impossible to reconcile? How might the various Christian denominations be reconciled by people willing to engage in cruciform scandal? How might our churches become more racially integrated by Christians who are willing to engage in cruciform scandal? How might we be harbingers of love in this world even when it might appear to some as scandalous but we do it because we know that the cross is scandalous and that none of us deserve any of what Christ has scandalously done on our behalf!