At the heart of the historic Jewish-Christian relationship, or perhaps I should say the Jewish-Christian conflict, is the question of election. Specifically, who is the Chosen People?
Being chosen is central to Jewish identity. Just a quick glance through the Siddur confirms that this idea, rooted in the Tanakh, is alive and well in the language of Jewish worship and prayer today. Blessed are you, king of the universe, who has chosen us from all peoples and given us your Torah. And it’s just as dominant in Christian thinking, rooted in the New Testament, from Yeshua’s word to his followers, “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” (John 15:16), to Peter’s declaration to the Yeshua-believing community: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people . . .” (1 Pet. 2:9, NRSV).
Can there be two chosen peoples? The church has tended to resolve this dilemma with replacement theology that declares it to be chosen in place of the Jewish people, so that 1 Peter 2, for example, is seen as transferring the chosenness that once belonged to Israel, described in Exodus 19:6, to the church. The Jewish Annotated New Testament comments on this passage in Peter:
Christian identification with biblical Israel became so familiar that by the second century, the apologist Justin Martyr declared Christians the “true Israel” (Dial. 11.5; 123.6–9; 135.3). An unfortunate corollary for some Christian interpreters was that “old Israel” lost the covenant. . . . The stage was set for an anti-Jewish reading of Israel’s Scripture and the denial of Jews as a covenant people.
In recent times, the church, particularly the Roman Catholic Church,has tried to correct such anti-Jewish readings. Messianic Jews tend to view Roman Catholicism as spooky and theologically questionable, with its emphasis on papal authority, veneration of the saints, and a celibate priesthood. But we need to appreciate its efforts to correct replacement theology and Christian anti-Semitism. Nostra Aetate, a document that came out of the 1965 Vatican II Council, says that the Church “acknowledges that, according to God’s saving design, the beginnings of her faith and her election are found already among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets.” It continues:
The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the gentiles. . . .
Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.
In other words, the Catholic Church affirms the continuing covenantal election of Israel (meaning the Jewish people), alongside “the new people of God,” the Church. The election of one doesn’t have to negate the election of the other. But exactly how this double election (two chosen peoples?) works out still remains to be seen.
My friend and colleague Mark Kinzer has just released a book that explores this issue, among others of equal importance. Its title, Searching Her Own Mystery: Nostra Aetate, the Jewish People, and the Identity of the Church (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), comes from the opening of Nostra Aetate, the text quoted above, which reads, “As the sacred synod [i.e. Vatican II] searches into the mystery of the Church, it remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham’s stock.” As Mark’s title implies, his book is directed primarily toward the Catholic Church, but it’s essential reading for Messianic Jews as well, because, among several other issues vital to our theological understanding, it addresses the old dilemma of election in a radically new way.
I plan to interact with Searching Her Own Mystery in a few blogs, so I’ll just introduce some of Dr. Kinzer’s thinking for now. He centers throughout on Yeshua himself as the key to understanding the nature of election as it applies to both Israel and the church. Let’s start with this:
Those [Jews] who do not receive the good news are put in an anomalous and precarious situation—yet Jesus remains their sovereign and head, whether they acknowledge the fact or not. He was born “the King of the Jews” (Matt 2:2), he was crucified under the same title (Matt 27:11, 29, 37), and he will bear it for all eternity. . . .
To say that Jesus was a Jew is a fact of history. To say that Jesus is a Jew is a fact of explosive theological consequence.
Another friend and colleague, Dr. Stuart Dauermann, addresses this same issue as it applies directly to the Messianic Jewish community in Son of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Jewish Community (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010). Stuart writes that Scripture, and Scripture’s portrayal of Messiah Yeshua as Son of David, would lead us to expect a Messianic Jewish community that is “a movement of observant Jews at the heart of the Jewish community, empowered by the Spirit, demonstrating the authority of the risen Messiah—as a sign, demonstration, and catalyst of God’s consummating purposes for Israel, the nations, and the entire creation.” Mark Kinzer makes a similar point—since Messiah Yeshua is the King of Israel, his Jewish followers are to be loyal to the traditions and calling of Israel, and unabashedly part of the Jewish people. Mark also speaks to the church, specifically the Roman Catholic Church, but through it to the universal ecclesia, the assembly of all who name Jesus as Lord and Messiah. He asks the church to affirm a Yeshua-movement “of observant Jews at the heart of the Jewish community.” It’s not enough to renounce the church’s history of penalizing “those who were seeking to fulfill their divine vocation as Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah.” Instead, a church that repents of historic anti-Semitism and recognizes its own deep rooting in the Jewish people and religion will support the distinctive calling of Jewish followers of Yeshua.
My title is a question – “Two Chosen Peoples?” Kinzer’s answer will be to portray one Chosen People with two divinely-sanctioned components, and we’ll look more closely at that portrayal later. What unites the two is that Yeshua’s status as Messiah can’t be separated from his office as King of the Jews.
Jewish people who honor Yeshua as Messiah are not departing from their Jewishness, but doing the exact opposite. We are receiving the King of the Jews, who is the rightful head and representative of the Jewish people, whether our people recognize him or not. He is present in hidden ways within our customs and writings, just as he is within the Holy Scriptures themselves. As one of our ancient prayers says,
Our God and God of our fathers, may there ascend, come, and reach, be seen, accepted, and heard, recalled and remembered before you, the remembrance and recollection of us, the remembrance of our ancestors, the remembrance of Messiah son of David, your servant . . .
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