The Kingdom Revolution #2
You are all sons of God though faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. –Galatians 3:26-28
The first century Roman world was in some ways remarkably tolerant concerning race and even religion. According to the Caesar as long as subservient conquered people would pay homage to the Roman gods along with the Emperor and obey Roman rule they were pretty much left alone to pursue their native culture and religion. If a nation refused to do so, then such tolerance ended. Jews in Palestine were such a people. Israel was a hotbed of rebellion. This ultimately led in 70 A.D. to the complete and utter desolation of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple—the Jewish cultural and religious center.
At the core of the Jewish rebellion was a desire to be free to pursue their own interests as a nation including the practicing of their religion. Embedded within this core was a prejudicial attitude toward non-Jews. The Jewish historian Josephus noted that the Jews “did not come into contact with other people because of their separateness” (Antiq. 13:245-247; Apion, 2.210). This separateness evolved out of certain requirements of the Law. Because of their dietary requirements, ceremonial cleansing, and other such practices, most Jews viewed non-Jews as unclean. The physical mark of circumcision also separated the Jews from the rest of the population. This led to elitism and an entrenched prejudice toward non-Jewish people. As expected a pushback to this occurred from among non-Jews. In general the Jew-Gentile relationship in the first century was not a healthy one.
This is evident in Christ’s ministry. As he expanded the idea of God’s kingdom, he often prodded at the Jewish elitism identifying non-Jews as the heroes of stories (the Good Samaritan for example). He continually challenged the status quo. He wanted them to see the revolutionary nature of the kingdom of God. It was no longer just a Jewish domain nor was it ever designed to remain so. Then the apostle Paul—more than anyone else as he carried out his “ministry of reconciliation” among non-Jewish people—dealt with the struggle of Jew/Gentile racism within the church. One commentator writes of this:
From the Jews, whose view of Gentiles was filtered by Levitical prescriptions for ethnic purity, came accusations that Paul’s Gentile inclusiveness had polluted God’s covenant to His people. After all, the majority of Gentiles led unceremoniously unclean lives and held Judaism’s mores in contempt. From the Gentiles, whose view of the Jews was marked a by derogatory racial superiority, there arose a sense that Paul was futilely pandering to his kinsmen. After all, the Jews rejected their Messiah, seemingly forgoing God’s favor on them. For Paul to conjoin Jews and Gentiles together as the co-recipients of the gospel’s salvific power was to offer a gospel liable to shame from both ethnic groups.*
The greatest threat to the Christian faith in the first century was racism. Jews and Gentiles detested each other. Both Jews and Gentiles perpetrated stereotypes. Both made false assumptions about the other. Both Jews and Gentiles thought the best way to live was at an advantageous distance from the other.*
Into all of this Paul speaks the words of Galatians 3:26-28 and it was totally revolutionary, radical and scandalous. It spoke to the very way people for generations had been identifying themselves—and proudly so–by their race, heritage and culture.
The situation among the churches in Galatia was fairly typical of the racial dynamic of the day. Many Jews within the Galatian churches refused to accept non-Jews unless they also embraced certain Jewish traditions and customs. Paul refused this—calling their teaching “another gospel.” It was all about identity and there was just one identity that mattered—that of being in Christ. It superseded all others. In him there is neither Jew nor Greek. Within the kingdom of God our very identities are transformed. Our race takes a back seat to our faith. This was the revolutionary message to the Galatian churches then and remains so.
In Christ Race is Revolutionized
Jesus, through his death and resurrection, dramatically ripped apart the barriers of hostility that divide races (Ephesians 2:14). He is the God of both the Jew and non-Jew (Romans 3:29-30). He is the God of both black and white and every nation and tongue. It is in him and through his power that prejudice is overcome and a new revolutionary way of thinking about race and identity is lived out.
- Redefine our Primary Identity. No longer are we to identify ourselves first as Jew/Gentile or back/white, etc. Our clothing has changed! We wear Christ as our primary identity. Even further our primary citizenship is no longer within the nation we reside. Instead it is in the kingdom of God. When we put on Christ in baptism—everything changes including the way we view ourselves. We identity first with him and his kingdom. Our priorities are revolutionized. We discover a new way of viewing other people. We are adopted into a family with a different set of values.
- Racism is replaced with acceptance (Romans 15:7). We learn to accept each other in Christ Jesus. We are set free from suspicion and separation. It is Christ who binds us together in his grace. What brings us together in him becomes more valuable than what separated us before him. Instead of making worldly assumptions about one another based upon race or other factors, we are moved with the compassion of Jesus to accept and embrace one another based upon the fact that he saved us all with the same sacrifice. No one is superior to any other. Paul stated it clearly—all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Who are we to consider ourselves better than anyone else (Romans 2:1-2)?
- Relationships are revolutionized. They are, in fact, redeemed in Jesus. The old way of thinking is revolutionized. In God’s kingdom relationships are based upon God’s grace. In Christ we are made to be one people—not many. Race is secondary. Christ is primary. Since he destroyed all the barriers of separation, we are now set free to embrace, accept and love each other in a way that can be found no where else—a revolution of relationships that mark us as citizens of God’s kingdom.
What emerges from this is a true post-racial community. (It is not a community free of the reality of race. Nowhere does God ask us to ignore our racial heritage and culture. Paul allowed Jewish Christians to continue to practice circumcision, dietary customs and keep Jewish holy days—as long as it never superseded their kingdom identity or they attempted to enforce them upon non-Jewish Christians). It is a community that simply refuses to allow race to be the dividing line; to create hostility and separation; or to undermine the unity of God’s kingdom. It acknowledges that racism is sin in any and every form. It strives to present the kingdom alternative—the revolutionary idea that race is not primary, but Christ is. It is the revolutionary nature of the kingdom—a place that looks like this:
After this I looked and saw a multitude too large to count, from every nation and tribe and people and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb! –Revelation 7:9-10
Want to revolutionize race relations in our world? The only way is Jesus. The only place is in his kingdom.
* Both quotes are taken from article entitled. “The Gospel, Unashamed: Race Relations in Rome, Part 2 on the Downline Ministry Blogpost of July 17, 2016.