Messianic Jews sometimes criticize Christians who tolerate symbols such as Christmas trees and Easter eggs in their celebrations—symbols that are originally from pagan religions. On the other hand, some Christians find it difficult to understand why they should care about the Jewishness of Jesus; after all, Jesus came to identify with every nation and the message of salvation in the Bible is very universal. Each of these groups has a point, and they seem difficult to reconcile with each other.
Originally, Christianity was a Jewish thing—Jesus and the disciples didn’t found a new religion. The first followers of Jesus were Jews. Even Paul, who is called the apostle to the Gentiles, always went to synagogues to reach out to the Jews first. When he preached to Gentiles, they were in most cases “God-fearers”: Gentiles who hung around the synagogues to hear about the God of Israel. Based on Acts 21, Paul seems to have been a Torah-observant Jew himself, even though he preached very passionately about freedom for the Gentiles and also about the Jews being saved by faith and faith alone. The apostolic council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) decided that new Gentile believers didn’t have to convert to Judaism to be part of the community.
One of the reasons faith in Jesus the Jew spread so quickly in the ancient world was indeed its adaptability to different circumstances and cultures. We hear this new, ground-breaking attitude in Paul’s words, where he describes how he “contextualizes himself” for the sake of the gospel:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law. . . . (1 Cor. 9:19–23)
Contextualization takes place when the gospel meets a culture. When we preach the gospel, there are always at least three contexts present: the biblical context of the message, the context of the preacher, and the context of the hearer. We cannot ignore this if we want to reach people with the gospel. Without contextualization, people will not connect to Jesus in a way that moves their hearts. Faith will feel foreign; churches will never feel rooted in the culture and people will not see the gospel really winning. This is true on every mission field—in Muslim countries, in Israel, and also in post-Christian Europe or the USA!
During the first centuries AD, Jewish believers became a minority in a Gentile-dominated church. Due to many historical reasons, some anti-Jewish ideas became rooted in the church, which was largely alienated from its Jewish origins. This has resulted in a situation where the original meaning of Scripture is often lost. In a post-modern world everyone has their own story, and in the name of contextualization you can impose on the Bible almost any idea you like. The church is “drifting” and needs to connect again with her roots, to strive to study them—regardless of the almost-2,000-year gap between the writings and us! In this process, the church desperately needs the Jewish part of the body.
There will always be a tension between contextualization and the Jewishness of the gospel, but both of them are needed. At its best, this tension can be creative and bring glory to the Lord!