I am interested in this question from several angles. First, there is a general idea that something radical changed for non-Jews with the appearance, death, resurrection, and ascension of Yeshua. Second, in Messianic Judaism we constantly hear people with varying ideas about how Gentiles and Jews are not distinct in any way. From slogans like, “we’re all grafted in,” or “we’re all children of Abraham,” to theologies like supersessionism (replacement theology), One Law, Ephraimite restorationism, and even Anglo-Israelism, there are many ideas out there about why non-Jewish Christians and Messianics are now, for all intents and purposes, Jews.
Really the first angle interests me far more than the second one. But as Messianic Judaism comes to grips with the important issue of non-Jews in our synagogues (including me), the second question has more practical relevance.
The following is the beginning of a quest to answer, “What did Yeshua change for Gentiles?” I am not able to be thorough here, but hopefully will say enough to get a conversation going and dispel a few options along the way which simply will not work.
Before Yeshua Were Gentiles Unclean or Forgotten By God?
Absolutely not. In Genesis 1-11 the focus is on God working with all his children and there is no sense in which people before Jacob were considered lesser sons and daughters of God. Furthermore, the covenant with Abraham is specifically said to be about blessing through Abraham to all the families on earth. God’s redemptive purposes have often been misunderstood.
God did not choose Israel because Jews are spiritually superior. The Bible never indicates this. This is a widely held belief in Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jewish circles. It is not good Judaism and it is not Biblical.
In the covenant between God and Israel at Mt. Sinai (a covenant which does not include Gentiles, by the way, as the nations were not a party to the Torah covenant), the intent again was to bring blessing to the whole world. Israel was chosen as a priestly nation (Exod 19:6).
A priestly relationship requires three parties: God, priest, and the recipients of the priestly revelation. If Israel is the priestly nation, then it is assumed that the other nations, a la Gentiles, are the beneficiaries.
God chose Israel because his plan is to work through one nation to reach all nations.
This plan of God has been called mutual blessing (see R. Kendall Soulen’s The God of Israel and Christian Theology). The nations bless Israel and are blessed in return.
Gentiles were not unclean or uninvited before Yeshua came. Numerous texts speak of God’s intent to redeem the world, especially in the Psalms and prophets. In Numbers 15:14 makes it clear that Gentiles could enter the court of the sanctuary exactly as Israelites to come to the altar and make a sacrifice. The Second Temple custom of excluding women and Gentiles from the court of the Temple was in violation of Torah clearly and without justification.
Did Yeshua Change the Message to Make it Palatable to Gentiles?
Another idea out there is that before Yeshua the message of God was for Jews only and no place could be found for non-Jews. But Yeshua came along and taught a religion for Gentiles as well as Jews.
Can anyone find for me a place where Yeshua preaches anything like this?
Of course there are several places, such as in Luke 4, where Yeshua spurs his own people to faithfulness by pointing out the irony of greater faith outside of Israel than in it. Also, Yeshua respectfully healed and worked with a number of Gentiles, including a Roman centurion and a Canaanite woman (though he did tell her he came only for Israel, Matt 15:21-28).
Yeshua’s message was restoration coming to Israel but only when Israel was ready to repent, to quit pursuing war as the answer, and call on God for salvation instead. He said the kingdom was coming, the same kingdom proclaimed throughout the Hebrew Bible.
There was no change in the divine economy which suddenly opened the kingdom to Gentiles who had somehow been previously excluded. Nor did Yeshua preach a Christian message somehow changed from the message of Judaism. Those who persist in believing Yeshua came to start a new religion are hard-pressed to find any evidence of it in the gospels.
How Did Paul and the Mission to the Gentiles Explain It?
If everyone would remember that Paul was a Torah-faithful Jew called to work cross-culturally with Gentiles, it would greatly benefit New Testament theology. Too many people assume that the distinction between Jews and non-Jews ended at the cross and that Paul’s words about circumcision and Torah are somehow God’s instructions for all who follow Messiah.
This is not so.
Paul did not live what he preached.
That may sound like blasphemy, but Paul was a Jew preaching to non-Jews. Paul did not consider the Sabbath a matter of choice as he preached in Romans 14. That was a message to non-Jews to consider that the Sabbath might not mean anything to them, but to other servants of God (Jews) the Sabbath was an important part of their relationship to God. Paul did not withhold circumcision from Jews and converts though he preached in Galatians and 1 Corinthians 7 that Gentiles should not, under normal circumstances, be circumcised.
Paul did not have liberty from the Torah. He kept it faithfully as we read clearly in Acts 21.
So, Paul was the revealer of God to the Gentiles. His writings should be understood that way.
And in two analogies Paul defined what the Gentile relationship to God and to Israel was. These two analogies come from different contexts and should be seen in their context.
The first was an olive tree with some wild branches grafted in by a master gardener (Rom 11:17-24). The second was a citizenship in the kingdom of God, in which Gentiles were recently included (Eph 2:11-22).
The Olive Tree and Its Context
The context of Romans is very different from that of Ephesus. The Roman disciples are hostile toward the Jews of Rome. Paul writes to defend his own people and call for disciples of Yeshua in Rome to respect God’s relationship with his own people.
For that reason, the olive tree metaphor is mostly about the distinction between Israel and Gentiles. It is a clear note that Gentiles are wild branches grafted into a natural tree. Wild branches never become natural branches. Neither will God give up his special relationship with Israel and allow non-Jews to take the place of his own chosen people.
The Citizenship Metaphor and Its Context
In Ephesus there was a need to build up the non-Jews following Messiah. They felt alienated, in need of reassurance that they were as beloved of God as Israel.
Thus, the emphasis in the citizenship metaphor is inclusion. Gentiles following Messiah should not feel alienated, as the Judaism of the time did make them feel alienated. There was no need to convert and become Jewish. Whereas the Temple regulations in Jerusalem and synagogue laws in the diaspora made them feel excluded, God has drawn them near.
They are citizens of Israel. (Note: Some translations use the term commonwealth, but the basic meaning is citizenship).
Does this mean Gentiles in Messiah are identical in relation to God as Jews? Not at all. Paul would be contradicting himself. Paul must envision this citizenship in a similar manner to the sojourner in the Torah.
To interpret Paul in Ephesians 2 as making Jews and Gentiles equivalent in relation to Torah and to God does violence to Romans 11 and many other apostolic teachings, not to mention the distinctions in Torah which Paul upholds.
Conclusion: So What Did Change?
The answer to this question is not what most people think. The cross did not somehow open a new door for Gentiles that did not previously exist. Gentiles did not become de facto Jews nor did Christians replace Israel as the chosen people.
Yeshua died to take Israel’s curses on himself and redeem his own people. But the redemption of Israel is the redemption of the world anyway, since God’s redemption comes through the particular and to all of his children.
It is something else that Yeshua did which is what changed for Gentiles.
Yeshua commanded the message of the kingdom of God be proclaimed in the nations (Matt 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8). Further, he appointed one of history’s greatest leaders and thinkers to head up the task, the highly educated and courageous Paul of Tarsus.
The invitation had always been there. Yeshua, as in many other areas, simply fulfilled in his own disciples what the nation of Israel was supposed to do all along.
The change in direction obviously worked. And our world has never been the same since the message of Israel’s God spread through Rome and to the world. The ideals of Psalms and Isaiah are seen fulfilled in the world today and Yeshua is not yet through. Glory be to God.