Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Worldwide Church

Life of Christ 125

          Between Hanukkah in December and Passover in April Jesus needs to avoid further antagonizing Israel's religious leadership. The last two times He has been in Jerusalem, for feasts, there have been repeated attempts to kill Him. Galilee is no longer receptive, and Herod Antipas, who rules there, is hunting Him. He just spent two months trying to evangelize Judea with no response, and He needs to avoid the region around Jerusalem anyway. Where will He go?
          Jesus chooses to spend the bulk of His remaining time in Perea, a mixed Jewish Gentile area on the eastern side of the Jordan River (John 10.40-42). It corresponds roughly with the geographical area inhabited by the two and half tribes of Israel in Joshua's day who wanted to settle east of the Jordan River, and is referred to in the New Testament as 'the land beyond Jordan.' Galilean Jews would travel through this territory when they took the long way around Samaria on their journeys to Jerusalem. In Jesus' day approximately half of the Perean population was composed of Gentiles.
          Our story today (Luke 13.22-30) involves a question that was asked to Jesus and His answer. The Apostles had placed their faith in Jesus as the Christ and as the Son of God. At the same time, politically, they were expecting Him to eventually become the king of Israel. For the last six months or so, however, things have been going from bad to worse. There was a  high point in Galilee when Jesus was actually offered a kingship, but He refused it. The resulting rejection in Galilee was very disappointing, and He spent substantial time outside of Israel away from the crowds teaching His Apostles. On the occasions when He did return to Israel He found repeated attempts on His life, and continued rejection in both Galilee and Judea. The Apostles have watched as what was a gradually building acceptance of Him, at least in Galilee, transitioned into a national rejection, and then transitioned again into open hostility. Naturally, this bell curve of rejection, acceptance, and then rejection again concerned them. Things were trending the wrong way, to put it mildly.
          'Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved?' (Luke 13.23). Jesus' answer is that the opportunities to be receptive of Him were not, in insurance terminology, guaranteed renewable. They had a time limit. 'Many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able. When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know not whence ye are' (Luke 13.24-25). This remained true, even if those to whom He was offering Himself were His own people, so to speak, those that already knew Him well. 'Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets. But he shall say, I tell you, I know not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity' (Luke 13.26-27).
          This is a clear reference to national Israel. Her opportunities to believe on Jesus were limited, not endless, even though she knew Him better than any other people group. At the judgment, then, what will be the response of Jesus' generation of Jews when they see their esteemed forefathers entering into a Heaven from which they themselves are barred? 'There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out' (Luke 13.28).
          If a nation full of unbelieving Jews will not populate Heaven then who will? The last ones you would think, the despised Gentiles. 'And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God. And, behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last' (Luke 13.29-30). Yes, Jesus said this in a region that had a large Gentile population, but He was not just pandering here. He was preparing the Apostles, His primary target audience, for the necessary direction the Church would take after He left.
          The first church, established the prior summer on the flanks of Mount Hermon, was composed exclusively of Jews. This church would continue beyond Jesus' lifetime, and would be the church that gathered together in Acts 1. At that point they numbered 120 people, again, all Jews. Initially, in the months immediately after Christ's ascension, thousands would get saved, baptized, and join that church, and the vast majority of them would be Jews.
          All of this would change, however, and three things would change it. First, the tender Jewish response to the Apostles' message began to harden. Just a few chapters later, in Acts 7, Stephen would call the Jews 'stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears' and tell them 'ye do always resist the Holy Ghost.' They would prove him right by biting him in a crowded frenzy, and then stoning him to death. The second circumstance was the great persecution that came to that first church in Jerusalem in Acts 8, which resulted in the scattering of the church. The third event, which was more like a series of events actually, would see the disciples finally begin to turn toward the Gentiles. In Acts 8, Phillip preached a revival to the Gentiles in Samaria, and then won the Gentile Ethiopian eunuch to Christ. In Acts 9 the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, got saved. In Acts 10 Peter experienced the great vision of the sheet filled with unclean animals, which was a direct lesson from God to him about reaching Gentiles, and then the floodgates opened in Acts 11 as the common Jewish Christian began to witness to the Grecians around them.
Jews rallying in Chicago, November, 2013
        Two millennia and an ocean removed from that day the truth is that very few Jews are in church. Instead, Christianity has become composed almost exclusively of Gentiles. Take the city of Chicago, for instance, where I live. There are 265,000 Jews in Chicago. I have been in at least a dozen churches in Chicago and I have never yet met a Jewish convert to Christianity. I would be surprised if you had one in your church. I'm not happy about that, by any means, but the fact is that Jesus was right in what He said in Luke 13. Heaven will be largely populated by Gentiles who put their faith in a Jewish messiah that the Jews themselves rejected.
          I have no wish to be misunderstood. I am not supporting the anti-semitic position that the Jews were Christ killers and thus liable for any ill treatment we can dream up. Such a position is abhorrent to Jehovah, and ought to be to His people. What I am saying is that Jesus, yet again, was trying to get across to His Apostles the urgent necessity of overcoming their instinctive racial prejudice. If the infant Church had sought to remain a Jewish Church it would have died young. Praise God, it did learn to embrace the Gentiles, and in so doing it became a worldwide church.
          Two thoughts flow from this, and although I will not belabor them, I must mention them. First, ethnic prejudice has no place in the church. Your church, and mine, ought to pursue and welcome every ethnicity or skin color it can possibly reach. If it does not or will not there is an awful tear in the fabric of our Christianity. Second, we must take the Gospel to the entire world. Jesus died, not just for the Jews, but for the sins of the whole world.
          I, for one, am glad. See, I am a Gentile, and if the early Church had not learned to incorporate Jesus' teaching, and to turn from reaching out exclusively to Jews toward the wider Roman world I would be lost today. Likely, so would you. Let us beware that this warm welcome does not stop with us. Let us embrace all who would come to Christ, no matter their immigration status, social status, or any other status.

          Jesus shed His blood to purchase a worldwide church. 

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