I think one of the most dangerous things we do when we read the Bible is project our own ideas onto it.
Like a movie projector onto a giant screen, we splash our ideas, our values, our preconceived notions all over the Bible’s pages. Then, when we read it, it tells us exactly what we expected to hear. We shouldn’t be surprised—we planted those ideas there ourselves.
Though I spent half my childhood overseas, I grew up in an American family with modern American values. In America, we have certain words and ideas that are charged with emotion—words like “freedom,” “liberty,” “equality,” “diversity,” “racism,” “discrimination”—that helped shape our society. We tend to see these concepts in everything we read.
This process is easy to see in our movies. In America, when we make a movie about a historical event, it usually boils down to lovers of freedom and democracy (the good guys) versus the evil authoritarian dictator and his people (the bad guys). The good guys in our movies also tend to be feminist, anti-slavery, and tolerant of other religions—they adopt the values of twenty-first century America, even if it doesn’t make any sense, even if the historical reality was completely different. We project our values onto historical figures that we identify with.
We laugh when movies get these things wrong. But we make the same mistakes when we read the Bible. So, for example, when the Law of Moses talks about slavery, we say—“Oh, how backward. Thank goodness Jesus came to get rid of that nasty old law. Slavery! The very thought!”
We do the same thing with laws pertaining to a woman’s monthly cycle. We tend to think that these laws are backward and oppressive, even if we also believe on some level that God inspired the Old Testament.
This isn’t a good way to read the Bible. We can’t project our modern values onto the text and expect to get an intelligible result. People were different back then; we have to get into their world, not expect them to automatically make sense in our world.
One area in which projection has become a real problem both in Christianity and in the Messianic movement is the area of the chosenness of God’s unique people, the Jews. The Bible says that God chose the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for a specific mission—to show the rest of the world what God is like by living out the commandments of the Torah (Deuteronomy 4:5-8).
In our modern, enlightened society, a God who chooses one group of people based on a promise made to their ancestor is a backward, tribal god—even a racist and discriminatory god. Everyone knows that God can’t just pick one ethnic group. Anyone should be able to become one of God’s special people. Right?
In a way, anyone can; through Jesus, anyone can become one of the “sons of God” (John 1:12). Being a child of God is certainly a special and unique status; the door has been flung wide open in that respect. But this doesn’t negate the promises God made specifically to the Jewish people. It doesn’t mean that everyone who has a relationship with God suddenly becomes an Israelite. Even among believers in Jesus, there still remains a distinction between Jew and Gentile.
This distinction is most obvious in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, where Paul instructs his Jewish and Gentile congregants to remain in the calling that God called them to, whether Jew or Gentile. He commanded them not to cross the boundary from one to the other. There is an ancient distinction between them that God has put in place since the call of Abraham in Genesis 12.
To some people, this idea is offensive—even scandalous. A term often used of this difficult concept is the “scandal of particularity”—it seems inherently wrong that the God of everyone would play favorites, calling one specific nation to be his unique people and seemingly ignoring the rest. Doesn’t God care about everyone?
Peter alleviates our fears in Acts 10:34-35: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” In other words, God accepts people from all nations who fear and obey him. It’s not as if God singled out the Jewish people for salvation and left the rest of the world hanging.
It follows that being accepted by God doesn’t make one Jewish, any more than being Jewish is a guarantee of divine favor. Whether or not one is accepted by God and whether or not one is Jewish are two different issues. One doesn’t automatically follow the other. Many people get confused by this, because they want to be part of the people of God, and the Jews are God’s chosen people. But God can choose Gentiles, too.
Because God can choose Gentiles, though, many people have decided that the Jews no longer matter. But this isn’t what the Bible teaches. Whether you believe in Jesus or not, it still matters whether or not you are Jewish. God has placed a special, irrevocable calling on the Jewish people (Romans 11:29).
Believing in Jesus doesn’t give one a direct line of continuity with the ancient Israelite people. It doesn’t erase the distinction that Paul fought so hard to keep in place, his “rule in all the churches” (1 Corinthians 7:17) that Jews were to remain Jews and Gentiles were to remain members of the nations they were born into; each group of people, though united in Christ, was to keep its unique status and mission from God.
After all, God determines where and to whom one is born. Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 7 indicates that this deliberate choice by God reflects a special calling that God has placed on one’s life. Personally, I find it comforting that God chose to make me the way I am, that I wasn’t an accident or an afterthought, but that I was specifically called to be part of my culture and society, and shine the light of Jesus here to people who speak my language and understand where I am coming from. The same is true for all of us, no matter what our ancestry or background. We can all rejoice that God called us to be who we are, where we are.
It can be said that God is a God that unites us. He breaks down barriers and causes people who are different to treat each other with love and respect. However, God is also a God of distinction. He does not long for a world of homogeneity where everyone is exactly the same. It is easy to see that God made us all different. He gave us different abilities and personalities and called us to different places and missions. If we were all exactly the same, think how boring the world would be. Think how many things we would never accomplish because we couldn’t see things from more than one point of view.
So it shouldn’t be hard to believe that God would choose a specific people, the Jews, to accomplish a special mission that no one else could accomplish. Rather, we should glorify God who made us each according to his will. Instead of wondering why God would give someone else or some other group of people a special calling, focus on your own calling—the mission that only you can accomplish for God. Ask God—“What did you place me here for? What can I do for you right here and right now?”
I am sure God has an answer for you.
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