Be sure to read installment #1 in this short series on “The Loss of Identity.” In our modern world, where the conflict over the land of Israel is focused on “Israel” it is absolutely critical to understand what the Bible says about the identity of “the Israel of God.”
My question here is, what identified a “Jew” in the first century? What marked one as a member of the covenant community? What told the world, “This person is a member of the nation of Israel?”
There were, in fact, several external “markers” that identified the people of Israel in the ancient world. Those markers were recognized by Israelites, and the world alike and those practices often caused strife between Israel and their neighbors who simply did not understand why the Jews did what they did!
E. P. Sanders took note of the key “Jewish” practices that served as identifying markers of the chosen people: “There is something that is common to circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws, and which sets them off from other laws; they created a social distinction between Jews and other races in the Greco-Roman world. Further, they were aspects of Judaism which drew criticism and ridicule from pagan authors. Jewish monotheism also set Jews apart from Gentiles, but, it seems not to have drawn the ridicule of the pagans in the way that Sabbath, food laws, and circumcision did.” (Paul, the Law and the Jewish People, (Minneapolis, Fortress, 1983)102).
Remember, we are not denying that the genealogical records did in fact establish and confirm the “blood line descent” of Israelites in the first century. What we are examining here is the Biblical fact that the NT, in dramatic, revolutionary fashion, discussed the key, distinctive practices that said to the outside world “I am of the Abrahamic Covenant. I am of the chosen seed. I am of YHVH.”
What is absolutely necessary to realize– to grasp and comprehend– is that the NT establishes the fact that with the appearance of Jesus, as Messiah, that any reliance, any trust, any confidence in genealogies is over and pointless. The One that the genealogical records pointed to had and has come. There is no more need for genealogical studies for theological, religious purposes!
The New Testament writers are very clear that blood alone did not guarantee inheritance of the kingdom. And that message began with John the Baptizer’s warning to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Do not think to say within yourselves, ‘We are Abraham’s seed.” For I say unto you that God is able of these very stones to raise up children unto Abraham.’”
Given the climate of the day, in which it was sometimes believed that blood descent from Abraham was sufficient to guarantee a place in the kingdom, these were stunning and portentous words. But, the sentiment was echoed by Paul of course, when he said, “they are not all Israel who are of Israel” (Romans 9: 6f). And to get ahead of ourselves a bit, on one occasion, Jesus was in a house, pressed by the multitude. Someone noted that his mother and brothers were waiting to speak to him:
“Then one said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.” But He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50).
In a society where “marrying and giving in marriage” was determinative for inheritance, for identity, for proof of link with Abraham and the promises, Jesus’ comments were stunning – not to say revolutionary! Yet, this was not the last time he had challenged the prevailing thought of the day.
In John 8:32f, Jesus uttered his famous words, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” The Jews then exclaimed some of the most arrogant, false comments imaginable: “We are Abraham’s seed and have never in bondage to any man.” To say that this was ridiculous is an incredible understatement!
From Assyria, to Babylon, to Persia to Greece to Rome, Israel had been in bondage! And of course, that does not even address the Egyptian Bondage!
Jesus continued his discussion with those Jews that day. He acknowledged their physical descent from Abraham, “I know that you are Abraham’s seed, but, you seek to kill me” (v. 37). And then, he said, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham.” Jesus thus identified the nature of the “seed” that he was talking about. He juxtaposed the acknowledged physical lineage of the Jews, but then said that if they were truly Abraham’s seed, they would show it in their lives!
That “seed” identification was through faith, just like Abraham. Jesus then drove that point home when he said to that audience: “You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning and abode not in truth…” (V. 44). Once again, Jesus spoke of “genealogy” and “lineage” but, he completely removed that discussion from the arena of blood!
This was a stunning “loss of identity” for that audience, and it is particularly relevant for the discussion of Replacement Theology, since Dispensationalists – just like the Jews of Jesus’ day – put their emphasis on ethnic Israel, not on Israel of the promised Seed! In the final, true analysis of things, it was Jesus who was “replacing” the misplaced emphasis on bloodline, with what God had always focused on, and that was the faith of Abraham.
What we have here is an echo of what Paul would later iterate: “So then, only those who are of faith are the children of Abraham” (Galatians 3:6). Jesus was identifying his true “seed,” his true family, his true lineage, as that identified by faith, not by blood. He was “tearing down” some of the very ordinances that separated Israel from the nations. Whereas Israel focused on their physical lineage, excluding other nations because they did not share that blood ancestry, Jesus, Paul and the NT writers said that the true seed of Abraham had nothing to do – when it came to the ultimate Abrahamic inheritance – with the national, ethnic, racial identification that they had so long cherished. Israel focused on race, God focused on Grace.
Be sure to get a copy of my brand new book, Misplaced Minds: Colossians 3:1-2 Dispensationalism Refuted. This is an incredibly powerful book!