Back in August I began preparing a sermon, operating on the possibility that I might’ve had to preach on Sunday. It turned out I didn’t, so I left my work somewhat unfinished. But today I thought I’d go back and share my thoughts, as it had some good potential.
Throughout the Bible, we can see history playing out the path toward salvation. Scholars often call this “Salvation History” or “Redemption History.” In short, the Old Covenant promises and prepares for salvation (through the coming Messiah), the New Covenant established by the Messiah reveals salvation in progress, and the return of the Messiah will complete salvation. The scripture readings from August 14th (Proper 15) highlight these three parts of salvation history quite neatly:
Isaiah 56:1,6-8 has some Temple imagery of sacrificial worship at the altar of God, with the promise that foreigners will also be able to join in. Back then, Gentiles (non-Jews) were excluded from worshiping the God of Israel unless they went through some some cleansing rituals (including receiving the mark of circumcision) to become Jewish. The sacrifices under the Old Covenant were a preparation for the perfect sacrifice of Christ (as the book of Hebrews expounds), and the inclusion of the Gentiles in that worship was a promise of salvation for all nations, not just for the Israelite nation.
Matthew 15:21-28 is the jarring conversation between Jesus and a Gentile woman in which Jesus tells her that he was only sent to Israel, and she memorably replies, “Even the dogs eat crumbs at the master’s table.” This shows us two important things on the subject of salvation history. First, Jesus points out that he wasn’t finished with the Old Covenant yet, but his healing her daughter anyway is a sign that they (the Gentiles) are next on his list. Secondly, the fact that woman recognized her place as second-in-line in God’s redemptive plan constituted what Jesus called “great faith.” Dare I paraphrase, “saving faith?” It may well be so.
Romans 11:1-2,29-32 addresses the tricky question of what has become of the Jewish race in light of the reality of the Christian gospel. Gentile believers are no longer second place, but equal to Jewish believers; they’re equal and one in Christ. Meanwhile, ethnic Jews who do not believe in the Messiah are experiencing their own turn as “outsiders.” And although this is the subject of considerable debate, there seems to be some sort of hint that someday many Jews will return to the Messiah after all.
Cool as it may be, simply talking about “salvation history” isn’t going to get us very far, except maybe score some biblical studies points. So I need to point us toward some of the present significance to all this. Most basically, this understanding of salvation history shows us the fact that Israel’s history is our history. The Israelite experiences of exodus, blessing, disobedience, curse, exile, and restoration, are our experiences too. Their pain and sorrows become the Church’s pain and sorrows. Their songs and prayers become the Church’s songs and prayers (in other words, yes we can still pray the Psalms – and should)!
Secondly, salvation history reminds us that we Gentile believers are “Part Two” in God’s plan. This should be a point of humility. We were never really left out, but God didn’t start with us; we’re a later stage of the redemptive process. Yes, this affords us opportunity to rejoice, because our salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. But that firstborn honor was not ours.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, as Romans 11:32 puts it, “God has bound all over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on all.” The Jews are not better than the Gentiles because of their “Part One” prominence. We Gentiles are not better off than the Jews because of our closeness to the end of the salvation plan. We all were bound to disobedience, and God has to have mercy on all of us if any are to be saved. From this angle, it’s no mystery that Jews and Gentiles are on the same level in Christ; everybody has corrupt souls in need of Christ’s cleansing presence.
So remember your place: God didn’t just save us out of the blue, it was carefully planned. So too should our Christian lives be intentional.
Remember your place: God’s continuously merciful because we’re continually sinful. Confess and repent, but be comforted in the knowledge of God’s sure plan of salvation.
Remember your place: we didn’t “join” the Church, God called us in. We should seek out why God brought us into his Church, not what status or value or talent or merit we brought in.