Inconvenient Truths is a series of intermittent postings highlighting concepts calling for changes in thought and action resisted, deplored, or denounced by some.
In a day when Jews and Gentiles who believe in Yeshua are thinking new thoughts about their relationship to one another, one of the concepts often mentioned is the One New Man of Ephesians, Chapter Two. However this concept is often misunderstood and the label misapplied. This posting seeks to clarity the term’s intended meaning and the range of acceptable applications, showing how and why it is an Inconvenient Truth.
By way of definition then,
The One New Man of Ephesians, Chapter Two, names a unity of two distinct communal realities living together not in uniformity, but rather in peace and mutual blessing. These two distinct realities are Yeshua believing Jews, living as Yeshua’s people in Torah-based Jewish piety, and the Church from among the nations, serving Him in their own contexts, apart from the requirements of Jewish piety.
When we speak of a unity, we do not mean a unanimity or a uniformity. While unanimity means every one in agreement, and uniformity means everyone being the same, unity preserves diverse viewpoints and different styles as they live together in mutual respect and harmony. The miracle of the One New Man is that those who are and who remain essentially different are enabled to live together reconciled, in love and mutual blessing.
This was of course something new in the purposes of God. Formerly, if one wanted to become part of the people of God, one had to join with the Jewish community an accommodate to Jewish life, to convert and become a Jew. With the coming of Messiah, that is no longer necessary: Gentiles become part of the people of God through the Messah who loved them and gave Himself for them just he did for the people of Israel. Somehow, God wills that his people be diverse.
New Testament scholar Mark Nanos traces this to the Shema, “Hear Israel, the LORD our God is One LORD.” The same God is Lord over all nations, not just the Jewish nation. If one had to become a Jew to become part of the people of God, then God would in effect be the Lord of only one nation—but this detracts from His glory. He is the Lord of all nations, and it is crucial that those of his people from other nations besides Israel honor Him within the context of their own cultures, rather than imagining that the Jewish culture is the only one He is prepared to bless and which may pay him due honor.
Paul insisted that Gentile Yeshua believers should not become circumcised and seek to keep the Law, not because the Law has been abolished, or because it is bad in some way, but because obedience to God’s Torah is not God’s call and will for Gentiles, who nevertheless become part of the people of God through Christ alone. This is also why James expected Paul to model Jewish piety, but said he required no such thing of the Gentiles who have believed (Acts 21:24-25), and this is why the Jerusalem Council disputed long (“much debate,” Acts 15:6) before deciding that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised, and be required to keep the Torah. The dispute would never have happened if the Jewish Yeshua believers had themselves given up Torah observance, or if they viewed it merely as one option among many. No! The question motivating the dispute at the Jerusalem Council was this: “Do the Gentiles need to keep Torah the same way we do?” (see Acts 15:1-21).
Rather than superseding the Jewish people, the Church from among the nations joins with them as part of the Commonwealth of Israel. Only in this way can the “dividing wall of hostility” – which supersessionism maintains – be removed. Gentiles are no longer categorically outsiders to the community of God’s people, but neither do they supplant Israel. However if Gentiles were required to obey Torah and live as Jews, one would be perpetuating their categorical exclusion as Gentiles. And it is a major component of the good news as proclaimed by Paul that this former categorical exclusion is over and done with through the work of Messiah!
The balance of unity and diversity in the One New Man is further highlighted in Ephesians 3:6, where Paul says “Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” The terms “fellow heirs, fellow members, and fellow partakers” require another communal reality with whom the Gentiles are joined, and that other partner is the community of Messianic Jews living in solidarity with wider Israel. It is only as Messianic Jews embrace this calling that their communities become the communal joining point whereby the Church from among the nations is joined to the Commonwealth of Israel.
Together, the Messianic Jewish Remnant, living in the context of Jewish community and covenant faithfulness, and the Church from among the nations, constitute the One New Man. But this One New Man is created not through abolishing differences, but rather through transcending them, bringing unity (not uniformity) between two communities that yet remain, and must remain, essentially distinct.
Although many translations have trouble expressing this nuance, the Weymouth New Testament gets it right:
His design was to unite the two sections of humanity in Himself so as to form one new man, thus effecting peace, and to reconcile Jews and Gentiles in one body to God, by means of His cross–slaying by it their mutual enmity. So He came and proclaimed good news of peace to you who were so far away, and peace to those who were near; because it is through Him that Jews and Gentiles alike have access through one Spirit to the Father.
Commentator Markus Barth helps us understand the flow of Paul’s argument:
The new man is “one . . . out of the two.” . . . The new creation is not an annihilation or replacement of the first creation but the glorification of God’s work. . . . Ephesians alone calls God’s covenant partner “one new man” and emphasizes that this man consists of two, that is, of Jews and Gentiles. . . . The incorporation of the Gentiles into Israel and the formation of one people consisting of Jews and Gentiles certainly does not mean that the Gentiles must become Jews, or the Jews Gentiles! (Markus Barth, Ephesians 1—3. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974).
We might add, and Barth goes on to explain, that Paul is not arguing for some sort of third race, as the late second century Epistle to Diognetus suggested, whereby in the One New Man Jews are no longer Jews nor Gentiles, Gentiles, but both constitute a third race. Precisely the opposite! The glory of God is that he enables those who are and who remain essentially distinct to live together as the people of God, reconciled not only to Him but to each other, without either community sacrificing its intrinsic distinctiveness.
Why then is the One New Man an Inconvenient Truth?
- The One New Man is an Inconvenient Truth because it reminds us that God intends that Jewish Yeshua believers live in the context of Jewish life and community, integrated with the Jewish world rather than being assimilated into the Gentile or Church worlds. Although in some cases due to factors such as intermarriage, this priority cannot and even should not be honored, nevertheless that would be an exception to the rule which affirms that those who call themselves Jews should be living communally Jewish Torah observant lives. This comes as an inconvenience to most of us who have accommodated ourselves to secularism or to other ecclesial contexts.
- The One New Man is an Inconvenient Truth because it states that God intends that Gentile Yeshua believers should normally live in the context of their own cultures, sanctifying these by offering them up for the honor of God in the power of the Spirit, through Yeshua the Messiah. However, aren’t there many who needlessly abandon their contexts of origin imagining that the Messianic Jewish context alone is the place where God may be acceptably served?
- The One New Man is an Inconvenient Truth because it exposes how inappropriate is our imagining that the Church from among the nations is somehow inferior to the Messianic Jewish Movement or Jewish life. On the contrary, both communal entities are essential aspects of the One New Man, and neither the Messiah nor the Father are properly honored apart from this One New Man comprised both of Messianic Jews honoring Yeshua within Jewish life amidst other Jews, and Gentiles glorifying God by redeeming their own cultural contexts for the glory of God.
- The One New Man is an Inconvenient Truth because it challenges both the Messianic Jewish component and the Church component to confront their attitudes and behavior toward each another. The Church from among the nations must not look down upon the Messianic Jewish context, nor the Messianic Jewish context look down upon the Church. Much work remains to be done in this area!
- The One New Man is an Inconvenient Truth because it calls us to examine whether our congregations are maintaining and advancing proper distinctives or rather ignoring and obscuring them. This is a most Inconvenient Truth for the Messianic Jewish Movement to contemplate. Many will become enraged by the question. But eventually even such a bright flashlight, having first painfully blinded one, in the end illumines the way forward. It is not that the Messianic Jewish movement must be free of Gentiles! It is that the movement fails to serve its purpose when Jewish life is not seriously pursued on the one hand, and the distinctions between calling of the Seed of Jacob and that of others preserved. To the extent that the Messianic Jewish movement creates a tertium quid in its congregations or in its entirety, it fails to preserve and advance these One New Man distinctives, but instead works against them.
Finally, we must not imagine that the One New Man is a model for each congregation. The term is not meant to apply to the micro-context (each congregation being a manifestation of the One New Man), but rather to the macro-context (the people of God taken as a whole are the One New Man with these two varieties of congregations represented).
Although the community of God’s people throughout the ages needs to be comprised of Jews living in covenantal community with other Jews and Gentiles glorifying God through the sanctification of their own cultures, this does not mean that every congregation must have some Jews as well as Gentiles to be legitimate. If that were the case, then every Lutheran congregation comprised entirely of Northern European Gentiles and every Korean Congregation comprised entirely of Koreans, with Torah observant Jews absent in both cases, would be substandard and out of compliance with the will of God! Obviously, this is not Paul’s message.