“Kings of the earth and all peoples … let them praise the name of the Lord” (Psalm 148:11a, 13a).
The early history of Israel shows the firm mandate from God that his people be separate from the nations round about them. Most significantly, their God was unique among all the gods of the nations. He claimed sovereignty that no other divinity did, and he alone could not be represented in an image. And yet a careful reading of the early books of the Old Testament shows that the barrier between Jew and pagan had a measure of porosity.
Commerce between them was permitted and even the stranger could have a place in Israel as a convert, and even as guest. Significantly, even the line of David has Gentile blood in it, as evidenced in the last verses in the book of Ruth. And where early in their history even Levites who were not of the house of Aaron were destroyed for presuming to take on priestly duties, the prophets repeatedly said that a time would come when the Gentiles would be gathered into the household of God, and some of them would become priests. Even the original promise given to Abraham was that through him all nations of the earth would be blessed.
Still, it is clear in the pages of the New Testament that the admission of Gentiles to the Church without their having to become Jews first precipated a crisis. For a long time Gentiles, even Roman soldiers, had been “God fearers” – Gentiles connected with a synagogue for its teaching and guidance but without becoming Jews. When Peter admitted uncircumcised Gentiles, almost certainly from among the “God fearers,” to the fellowship of the Church, the other apostles and circumcised believers had to be convinced that this was indeed the will of God. Peter’s vision, recounted in the lesson from Acts 11, is presented as having settled the matter, but the epistles of Paul make clear that the resolution was neither so quick nor so easy.
Nevertheless, it became clear that the gospel was and is for all people. Psalm 148 is a paean from the entire creation to God which nonetheless retains the uniqueness of Israel, “the people of Israel who are close to him” (Psalm 148:14); and the lesson from Revelation presents the anticipation of the fullness of the kingdom in which the household of God is described merely as “the new Jerusalem,” comprising all the redeemed. The gospel lesson, recounting a portion of Jesus’ last words to his disciples before his betrayal, teaches simply and profoundly that the disciples should “have love for one another” as a testimony to “everyone.”
Look It Up
Compare and contrast Jesus’ firm statements that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt. 5:18) and that “new wine must be put into new wineskins” (Luke 5:38).
Think About It
Does genuine freedom demand some kind of discipline, some sort of “fences”? If not, how shall people live? If so, what kind?