Transformation of Israel into the Church
How did the nation of Israel transform into the Church of Jesus Christ?
Transformation of Membership
The divine presence of Jesus also transformed the membership of the new Israel. Previously, one was eligible for membership by birth into the Hebrew race, and circumcision actualized this membership; the new Israel, however, would be open to all members of the human family and baptism would be the means of entry. A superficial review of Matthew might lead one to believe that since Jesus primarily preached to the race of Israel, he was not interested in a universal mission. However, a deeper appraisal shows that Matthew introduces hints of the Gentiles' inclusion into the new Israel throughout his Gospel before finally recording Jesus declaring it openly at its conclusion.
The listing of Jesus' genealogy, which occurs in the very first chapter of Matthew, gives the first hint of this facet of the transformation of Israel. Matthew includes four women in Christ's lineage: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah (Bathseba). The inclusion of women in the genealogy of an Israelite was unusual, but the inclusion of these four particular women is even more remarkable due to the fact that all four were Gentiles. Although Matthew's primary purpose in the genealogy is to establish Jesus' Israelite credentials, he also takes the opportunity to remind the reader of the role of Gentiles even in the old Israel and thus to introduce the ultimate universality of Jesus' mission.
We find Jesus himself intimating this coming transformation in Matthew 8:5-13. Here, a Roman centurion approaches Jesus with a request to heal his servant. Jesus offers to come to the centurion's house to heal the servant - a radical suggestion, as "[n]ormally a Jew would not enter the house of a Gentile; he would incur ritual uncleanness" (McKenzie 76). But the centurion demurs, perhaps believing himself unworthy of Jesus' visit, and confident that Jesus can heal his servant even from a distance. Jesus' response is revolutionary: "Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth" (Matt. 8:10-12). What is it that Jesus praises in this Gentile? His faith. This reveals what the new requirement of membership will be: faith, particularly in Christ. This man, who is not of the race of Abraham, the father in faith, has just been declared to be more faithful than Abraham's descendants! Not only that, but there will be "sons of the kingdom," i.e. Jews, that will not be included in God's salvation promises. This is another indication that race will no longer be a determining factor for membership in the new Israel.
A similar indication of the transformed importance of faith occurs in Matthew 15:21-28 in the encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman:
And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon." But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." And he answered, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly.
The fact that Matthew describes the woman as a "Canaanite" is noteworthy; this is the only use of that term in the New Testament, and brings up Old Testament images. In the Old Testament, "the Canaanites become the sinful race that embodies all that is wicked and godless, the race that is to be exterminated" (McKenzie 90). The fact that Jesus will have such an encounter with a woman of this race indicates that his mission will be universal, and extend to all peoples, even the enemies of Israel. In the passage, it appears at first that Jesus is going to refuse this woman's request - on the basis that she is not a Jew. However, he is not refusing her, but rather testing her faith to see if she truly believes in his power over evil. Again, it is faith that is the determining factor as to whether Jesus can work in a person's life; racial ancestry is irrelevant. The woman passes the test, and Jesus proclaims, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire" (Matt. 15:28). Like the centurion, the Gentile's faith is praised, confirming the basis of membership in the new Israel.
From these initial indications, we are brought to a full declaration of the status of the Gentile in the New Israel, the Church, at the end of Matthew's Gospel. After Christ's resurrection, he gives the apostles a final command: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:18-20, emphasis added). The apostles are commanded to preach to all nations, and there is no indication of any preferential treatment for the children of Israel. From now on, membership in the People of God is transformed from a single race to all the peoples of the world. This transformation is directly due to the presence of Jesus; as he says, "[a]ll authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" - it is under his authority that the apostles' mission is to be universal. This authority is the result of his complete obedience to the Father, and it is through this authority that he opens up the gates of the kingdom to all people, regardless of their ancestry, and based on their faith in him.
The means in which this faith is actualized, and thus membership occurs, is also found in this passage: baptism. It is through the cleansing waters of baptism that a person becomes a member of the People of God, the Church. Thus, the transformation of the membership requirements from the old Israel to the new is now complete: circumcision has been replaced by baptism, and racial identity has been replaced by faith. All people, from Canaanites to Israelites, are eligible to become members of the Church, the new Israel.