“Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” This might be the question you heard during the course of someone preaching the Gospel to you. You might have asked it yourself during evangelism. This one liner provides a pretty good summary of what the Gospel and spirituality mean in the 21st century. Research has shown that many Christians in the US are moving away from organised or institutionalized religion even though they still self-identify as Christians. Religion is the enemy whilst privatised spirituality is humanity’s best friend. It is popular in Christian circles to even say Christianity is not a religion but about a real relationship with God as if the two are mutually exclusive (see The Christian Religion) I have critiqued this post-modern move towards privatisation in other posts. Christianity is simply not about how I get saved. Don’t get me wrong, our personal salvation is important but it is certainly not the focus of the New Testament.
The current Christian preoccupation with ourselves is not only a distortion of the scriptures but it hurts the world. Many Christians make no attempt to improve the world around them because it is all about a private faith. I remember having a conversation in my first year in university with a person about spiritual matters. I do not remember what the conversation was precisely about. What I do remember was her response. She said that she had personal relationship with God in heart and that was enough for her. I left wondering, if she knew Jesus in her heart why wasn’t it showing in her actions? Surely, what you are on the inside is what shows on the outside.
People in the ancient world of the Bible, and for most of human history until recently, did not have the great chasm that divided private from public, religion from politics, and faith from reason. These strict modern categories were largely foreign to them. The first Christians in particular thought of themselves as a community. They reasoned from the communal level to the individual and not from the individual to the communal.
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. – Romans 1:8 ESV
As we can see from the scripture, what we might call spirituality was not a private affair. It was a communal expression of allegiance to Jesus. As Paul later writes in the same chapter, they were not ashamed of the Gospel. There is another passage in Romans which gives us a remarkable sense of the identity of the first Christians.
Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. – 1 Corinthians 10:32-33 ESV
Paul was addressing a controversial issue at that time. As always with him love was the guiding ethic where each person was not to seek his own but pursue the good of others. In his exhortation he mentions the main parties involved, the Jews, the Greeks and the Church. The Church is grouped along with two ethnic categories. The first Christians did not see themselves as “religious organization” but as a new race of humanity.
But 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. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. – 1 Peter 2:9-10 ESV
This famous scripture reiterates this new race mentality. The passage alludes to and references many Old Testament scriptures regarding Israel. Peter along with Paul reinterprets many of like passages to refer to the Church. The Christians saw themselves as an ethnos in the same way the Jews saw themselves as one people, the very people of God. In fact the Church saw itself as the new people of God. In broad strokes I will attempt to briefly explain this change in identity.
Israel had been called into a covenant relationship with YHWH. As such the family of Abraham was the people of God. For them there were only two kinds of people in the world, them and the rest, known as Gentiles. Gentiles were not God’s covenant people and did not share in Israel’s heritage. The only way a Gentile could share in their heritage is if they completely converted and became subject to the law of God, the Torah. Where Israel failed in her call as God’s people Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah succeeded. Embodying true and faithful Israel, that is, the Son of God, he gave made an avenue for Gentiles to become members of the family. This new way was not according to the Torah regulations where Israel failed. It was by faith in him and what God had accomplished through him. Now anyone who declared allegiance to God’s chosen king, the Lord Jesus, became a member of the family of YHWH, both Jew and Gentile. It was the Torah regulations that distinguished Jew from Gentile and through Jesus’ death those distinctions were set aside so everyone could become a child of God.
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. – Ephesians 2:14-16 ESV
The former categories meshed into a reconstituted new man, which is neither Jew nor Gentile. This new status in the Messiah is the reason why the early Christians thought of themselves as peculiar. As much as we have the Old Testament and the New Testament there is also the old people of God and the new people of God. The Greek word for church, ekklesia, is a word often used for the Hebrew eda, the congregation of Israel, in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament at that time.) They were the true assembly of God’s people. He is the God of everyone irrespective of their ethnicity. The Church did not see itself as Israel’s replacement but rather the continuation and fulfilment of its call and mission.
And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. – Ephesians 2:17-22 ESV
The Church saw itself in the Messiah as the true heirs of Abraham. They now shared in the heritage of the people of God. It was not Gentiles converting to Judaism but as Paul describes it the nations being grafted into the true family of Abraham (Romans 11.) There was of course continuity between Israel and the Church yet there were important distinctions. Paul transfers the temple language found in the Old Testament and sees it’s fulfilment in the Church by the Spirit. There was an aggressive reinterpretation of not only the scriptures but Jewishness around the person of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit.
In The Resurrection of the Son of God Professor Tom Wright does an excellent defence of the resurrection. (Dr Gary Habermas humorously describes it as an 800 page word study on resurrection!) Tom Wright places Christian belief in the resurrection in Second Temple Judaism. He however describes the Christian variations as important “mutations” in the essentially Jewish belief. Perhaps, it is my inner geek but I find that particular description very captivating. Not only were there mutations in their beliefs but also in their worldviews. As he outlines in the New Testament and the People of God worldviews consist of symbol, praxis, story and questions intimately interacting with each other. (In his magnum opus on Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God he combines the two as symbolic praxis because of the great deal of overlap between the two.) Symbol and praxis are things in a culture that have greater meaning and significance within that worldview than their bare selves. For example symbolic praxis among the Asante include kente cloth, speaking the local dialect Asante Twi, the Golden Stool of the Asante King among other things. Every culture has these identity markers. Again according to Tom Wright’s NTPFG for Israel this included the land, the Torah, the Temple, the various rites and festivals etc. From now on I will call symbolic praxis tradition because these things are passed on from one generation to the next preserving cultural identity.
In Christianity these Jewish traditions were modified. It was not just because they were a messianic sect looking for identity among many which dotted the historical landscape. They believed God had inaugurated a new thing, a new creation through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Like many things in this new order their traditions were quite familiar yet many were equally unfamiliar. Paul speaks of his mission as making every thought captive to Christ. As the early Church grew in their understanding of their God given purpose and mission they radically reinterpreted the world around them centred on Jesus the Messiah through the help of the Spirit. Though Paul had a significant impact on Christianity by the time he was writing the epistles the Church already had a solid tradition which Paul often referenced in his works. They had their own “creeds”, confessions, hymns among other things. As Dr Richard Hays calls it, we need to read backwards through the scriptures with both testaments shedding light on each other. Through this scriptural lens we better gain a sense of our identity as the people of God.
We need to rediscover our communal identity in today’s Church. As I read through the New Testament I gain a strong sense that believers are not made to function alone or privately. We often have our private struggles to be better Christians. Dr Michael Ramsden of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries offers some wonderful insight in this regard. He reminds us that being a Christian is an ontological category. Instead of trying to be a Christian you should recognize that you are a Christian. We are an ethnos, a chosen people who share a common heritage, have a common mission and share a common destiny.