One of the strongest impressions I have from my first year in Israel (1963-1964) was taking part in a Passover Seder (the joyous home celebration of Passover). It happened that during this first year in Israel my first contact with the Jewish people took place—there were no Jews living in Cleveland, Oklahoma, where I grew up.
As I and the other participants read the Haggadah, the book of worship used at the Seder service, we came to the place where it is written, “In every generation it is a man’s duty to look upon himself as if he personally came out of Egypt…for it was not only our ancestors whom the Holy One (blessed is he!) redeemed; he redeemed us as well with them!”
These startling conclusions were derived by ancient Jewish scholars from two passages of Scripture:
Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a feast to the LORD. Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen with you, and no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory. And you shall tell your son on that day, “It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.” (Exod. 13:6-8; RVS)
When your son asks you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which the LORD our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your son, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand; and the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes; and he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land which he swore to give to our fathers.” (Deut. 6:20-23; RSV)
Being a Christian and being familiar with the New Testament, I was shocked, but said to myself in amazement: “Yes, it’s true, I was there! I was there when we fled Egypt. I was there when we crossed the Red Sea. I was there when we wandered in the wilderness.”
As a Christian I knew something about vicariously being there: when Adam sinned, I sinned; when Jesus died on the cross, I died on the cross—in him, I was there—when Jesus was buried, I was buried with him; when he rose from the dead, I rose with him. As Paul states in Romans 6:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom. 6:3-5; RSV)
Not too long ago I received a letter from a Jerusalem Perspective reader, a Baptist pastor. He wrote:
I think I have heard you say something like, after a “Gentile” follows Jesus as Messiah, becomes a part of Israel spiritually, and has gone into the mikveh (baptism, for ritual cleansing?), he is no longer a Gentile, per se. If he is no longer a Gentile, is he a Jew? Or is he JUST a “spiritual Jew,” or a “Gentile in the gate,” or a God-fearer? What is legitimate to call him? So, am I a Jew now? I would be glad to be one! But I want to be very careful about what I say so as not to offend Jews or others unnecessarily.
My position is that, according to the New Testament, a pagan [a heathen, a Gentile; in Hebrew, goi] who becomes a follower of Jesus and enters the Kingdom of Heaven—in Christian parlance, “gets saved”—also becomes part of the commonwealth of Israel. If you prefer the term “spiritual Jew”—and your congregants will!—that’s OK, but I don’t think Jewishness has ever been anything other than a spiritual matter. Are you a Jew? In some sense, yes. Your Jewish neighbors won’t be able to understand this; therefore, it would probably be best to introduce yourself to them as a Christian.
Reading the Passover Seder for the first time, I reflected: “I believe that I died with Jesus, that, vicariously, I was there with him. Could I, born a Gentile, also believe that I took part in the Exodus from Egypt? Yes, I was there, too! Having joined the commonwealth of Israel, my ancestors include Moses, Aaron and the others who fled Egypt.” As Paul said:
I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea…. (1 Cor. 10:1-2; RSV)
The Corinthian Christians were a classic “Gentile” community, yet Paul wrote to them as if they were Jews:
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. (1 Cor. 5:1; RSV)
You know that when you were heathen, you were led astray to dumb idols, however you may have been moved. (1 Cor. 12:2; RVS)
To the followers of Jesus in Ephesus, Paul wrote:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh…were…separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. [Note Paul’s assumption that now these former Gentiles are no longer alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and are no longer strangers to the covenants of promise.] But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ…. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Eph. 2:11-13, 19; RSV)
It doesn’t matter that I was born a non-Jew; I have become part of “the commonwealth of Israel.” I have been joined to the people of Israel. Isn’t that exactly what the leaders of Jesus’ first community of disciples ruled?
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question…. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith…. We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are”….
Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers. With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia… It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things…. (Acts 15:1-2, 4-9, 11, 22-23, 28-29; NIV)
I think it can be said that Paul’s greatest challenge was to explain his mission to the formerly pagan and to defend himself against false charges that were leveled against him by Jewish members of the early church. Further, I think it can be argued that most, if not all, of Paul’s letters were written to explain what he called “the mystery of Christ” or “mystery of the gospel,” that is, that people of non-Jewish origin could, through Jesus, become part of Israel without the necessity of keeping all the commandments of Torah and having to be circumcised.
In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 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. 3:4-6; NIV)
Every Christian must answer the question, “Were you there with the Israelites when they left Egypt?” just as he or she must answer the question, “Were you there with Jesus when he was crucified?” for there is a strong connection between the Exodus from Egypt and Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection.
We followers of Jesus were in fact there, at the Red Sea and at Calvary’s cross, and we must not exclude ourselves from this experience, saying, “This doesn’t have anything to do with me.” Our spiritual well-being hinges on a personal identification with, and participation in, these events—on being able to say with the mouth and believe with the heart, “I was there.” Furthermore, we must be able to give a definite answer to the question, “Am I Jew or Gentile (part of God’s people or part of those whose God is not the God of Israel)?”