One of the trickiest subjects that Christians face when talking about their faith to Jews is the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. If we’re the New Israel, what does that make them? If we’re God’s elect, does that make Israel now ‘unelect’?
In seeking to resolve this question of relationship, two extremes tend to crop up, both extremely misleading (and arguably heretical). One is Replacement Theology. According to this view, the Church has utterly replaced Israel, and no vestiges of that Old Covenant need to be (or even ought to be) replicated in the New. The Church is the New Israel, and that’s that. At the other extreme is a form of Dispensationalism (I’m recognizing that dispensationalism can take multiple forms), wherein Christianity and Judaism are completely separate systems through which God works. The Old Covenant was for a previous age, the New is for the current age, but when the Church Age is finished, God will follow up with the Old Covenant folks too. Both of these approaches place a wide gulf between Israel and the Church, to an inappropriate extreme.
Additionally, a third wrong option has cropped up, though mainly just in the early days of the Church: Judaizing. In this viewpoint, the Church needs to continue acting according to the Old Covenant as well as the New. The Apostle Paul found this to be heretical, and condemned this teaching throughout his epistle to the Galatians.
The middle ground, wherein the right relationship between Old and New may be found, necessitates an understanding of both separation and continuity. Yesterday I was reading from Mark 2, and found a couple teachings in here very pertinent to this topic.
First was the Pharisees’ question about fasting – they and their disciples did it, John the Baptist and his disciples were doing it, but Jesus and his disciples were not. Why? Jesus explained “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.” This is a statement of something new going on – Jesus is a bridegroom for God’s people, playing on imagery from prophets such as Hosea & Ezekiel wherein Israel is an unfaithful wife to her husband, God. What we see from this, then, is a fulfillment of Old Covenant theology. Jesus is showing that Christianity is going to be Jewish with a new step forward.
Jesus also explained “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” Old Covenant practices aren’t completely abolished; Jesus expects Christians to fast. It’s not an explicit command, it’s an assumption our Lord takes for granted. However, the form and timing of our fasting should be different than the Jewish custom was. Hence Jesus’ words:
No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.
We still have garments and the wineskins, they’re not replaced with completely new things, but with better forms of the same things. Stepping away from metaphors and looking at possibilities in reality, let’s look at what the Mark reports next:
Look,why are they doingwhat is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And Jesus said to them,“Have you never readwhat David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him:how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and atethe bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man,not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.
This is a more concrete example of what we were looking at before. The Sabbath is a very Jewish practice. So uniquely Jewish, in fact, that over time they made it into this big thing that essentially enslaved them. Jesus corrected this tendency, pointing out that the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around. In other words, this weekly day of rest and worship is for our benefit, not some duty that weighs us down and gives us excuses to ignore real life.
However, this does not mean that Jesus abolished the Sabbath, or expected Christians to do whatever they wanted with it. Jesus simply meant that the Sabbath should be rightly observed according to the freedom of the New Covenant. And with the example of David eating the bread of the presence, Jesus points out that there had already been exceptions to usual Sabbath and holiness laws. Nevertheless we should be careful. The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath, not you and I. Too often Christians act like the Sabbath is meaningless and once they’ve fulfilled their going-to-church-in-the-morning obligation, they can do whatever they want.
Collecting this together somewhat, one could say that Christianity is an upgrade to what came before. Old Covenant markers like Circumcision and the Passover are replaced with New Covenant markers like Baptism and the Eucharist. Stringent Sabbath & food laws are opened up to a greater amount of freedom. The long detailed holiness code and collection of civil laws are boiled down their essential goal: love God and love your neighbors. “Works of the law” is summarized in “faith in Christ,” but still, “faith without works is dead.” We’ve not completely replaced the “old” Israel, neither are we a completely new work of God in the course of history; we’re the next step in Israel’s history.