While I was studying at a summer program at Harvard University a number of years ago, I came across a girl from Greece. She and I had very interesting conversations, and I appreciated hearing about her culture and her religious background as an Orthodox Christian. One evening we were talking about theology or Scripture, and I mentioned how the Jews were God’s chosen people; it was simply a side note to a larger point we were discussing. I’ve never seen such outrage erupt from someone so quickly. Her language turned foul, and she fiercely attacked my so-called “heresy.” I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do. My Bible was on the other side of campus, and she just wasn’t interested in hearing what I had to say. How is it that she, growing up in a church, could miss something so blatantly obvious? I tried to explain, but I couldn’t get a word in. It’s one of those situations you walk away from and think, what just happened?
The statement Christianity is Jewish is a provocative one. In fact, one of our radio ads or links may have provoked you to come to this site to see what this is all about. The idea for this name comes from a book by Edith Schaeffer, Christianity is Jewish. Edith was the wife of Francis Schaeffer, one of the most influential theologian-philosophers of the 20th Century, and in this particular book, she discusses the Jewish roots of Christianity.
What does it mean to say Christianity is Jewish? First, let’s explore two things it does not mean. It doesn’t mean Christianity is Judaism. It doesn’t mean it’s the same. The other thing it doesn’t mean is that you must be Jewish to be a Christian. We first read of this issue in Acts 15, where certain Jews were telling Gentiles that they had to be circumcised in order to become a Christian. The Jerusalem Council met to discuss this, and their conclusion was that Jesus did not call Gentiles to become Jews or to come to Him through the Mosaic Law (i.e. physical circumcision) in order to be saved.
However, what we do mean to say is that Christianity is Jewish – its nature, symbols, writers, original leaders, Savior, they’re all Jewish. It’s a point many people look over. Put yourself in Jesus’ shoes (or sandals) for a moment. Let’s pretend that you are Jewish and that your name is Yeshua. Let’s say that you lived for 30 years in the land of Israel, growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home. You observed the Mosaic Law, Jewish festivals, went to a Jewish school, and spoke Hebrew. You have olive colored skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. Now you have come to another country and are making friends. People connect with you easily. They call you a name that they can pronounce, even though it’s not what people called you back home. You do the things that are customary in your new home country, but at the same time, you still hold on to your Jewish identity. Some people think to ask you about your home and the customs from your home; however, many don’t inquire about it. I think you can see where I’m going with this. Those who have experience growing up somewhere and then moving to another country (or even region) can identify with this difficulty. We forget that the culture that we grew up in very much shapes who we are and why we do what we do, and that is the reason immigrants desperately try to hold onto aspects of their home culture.
The vast majority of Christians are Gentiles. We (me being one of them) come to Jesus, knowing little or nothing about His Jewish nature and upbringing. We come to Him because He’s the Son of God, Savior of mankind, and the giver of eternal life. We usually don’t stop at first to think about how He relates to the Mosaic Law; instead, we relate our culture to Him. We are generally more likely to see Him through the crisis we are experiencing rather than through the Passover Seder. Passover, or any other feast, means little to nothing to us.
Ten years ago, if I were to drive through New York City in October and saw little tents made out of PVC pipe and cloth built up on the fire escapes of apartment buildings, I wouldn’t have a clue. And if someone more familiar with Jewish customs explained that this was the festival of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths), I still would have shrugged my shoulders. But when you start to learn about the history of Sukkot and why people built these booths, aspects of the Bible start making marvelous connections. For example, you begin to understand the correlation to how the Israelites dwelled in booths in the desert. Then you begin to see other aspects of the festival come to life. When you read Matthew 17 and the famous event of the Mount of Transfiguration, suddenly Peter’s outburst, “Lord, let’s make three tents,” makes sense. Peter talks about building booths or shelters because he wants Moses and Elijah not to be left out in the celebration. John 1:14 beautifully unfolds before us and we understand a little more fully this statement. John describes how the Word (Jesus) dwelled among them, using the same word associated with building a tent for Sukkot. “He built his tent among us.” Furthermore, now we start to understand his statement when he says, “we beheld His glory.” He’s talking about what he saw on the Mount of Transfiguration. Not to mention, Sukkot is a celebration of the harvest (much like Thanksgiving), and Jesus is the Great Harvester, who will harvest his people and gather them to Himself. All sorts of other correlations could be made as well, especially in regards to the visitations of Moses and Elijah.
This is just one example of how understanding the Jewish context helps us understand Scripture and who Jesus is. That is the point of this site. Let’s say you are walking down the hallway at work, and you overhear someone say to someone else, “there will be layoffs.” Suddenly, your ears perk up and your heart sinks. You quickly start spreading rumors; however, you have no idea about the context of the conversation. You weren’t aware that the person speaking wasn’t talking about your company but her husband’s company or that it wasn’t an imminent series of layoffs but one contingent on a proposed takeover by a much larger corporation. But you went with the story anyway and spread the news throughout your office to start looking for new jobs because layoffs were coming soon.
There is a danger of taking stories out of context, so it’s important to get the full picture. Can you come to Jesus independent of fully understanding who He is? Sure, we do it all the time, and He invites us to do so. His glory extends past culture and context and invites us to the here and now. It is called faith. We may not have all the answers, but we have enough that convinces us that He is worth following. But if we stay in that place – a place where we are ignorant of who Jesus really is and the context surrounding His life and teaching, we run into two dangers. First, we run into the danger of childish (not childlike) faith. We don’t have a good grasp of theology and context, so we act in ignorance and foolishness, which may also lead to the second danger – taking Scripture out of context and turning our faith into something it was never meant to be.
The context is important, and the context of Christianity is Jewish. The first Messianic prophecy occurs way back in Genesis 3:15. Jesus’ coming is prepared for and weaved through the Jews – God’s chosen people. Isn’t it fitting that Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem, meaning “house of bread” and later refers to Himself as “the Bread of Life?” The people who recorded the history of God’s work in 66 books were all Jews. And the first people to follow Jesus were Jews themselves. Let’s not forget that Jesus was a Jew – came from a Jewish home, went to Jewish school, wore Jewish clothes, knew His Hebrew backwards and forwards, studied and obeyed the Law, and most likely had olive colored skin, dark hair and dark eyes. If so many aspects of God’s works, Jesus, the early church, and Scripture itself are Jewish, isn’t it worth getting to know a little more about this context? We believe so.