God, Gentiles and Grace – On the Essence of the Inclusion Debate

Capernaum synagogue

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I recently heard Alistair Begg give an excellent summary (found here, about 17 minutes into the broadcast) of one of Jesus’ most compelling confrontations.

The text at hand is Luke 4:14-30:

14 Then Jesus returned to Galilee, filled with the Holy Spirit’s power. Reports about him spread quickly through the whole region. 15 He taught regularly in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.16 When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. 17 The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
19 and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.[f]

20 He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. 21 Then he began to speak to them. “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!”

22 Everyone spoke well of him and was amazed by the gracious words that came from his lips. “How can this be?” they asked. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

23 Then he said, “You will undoubtedly quote me this proverb: ‘Physician, heal yourself’—meaning, ‘Do miracles here in your hometown like those you did in Capernaum.’ 24 But I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his own hometown.

25 “Certainly there were many needy widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the heavens were closed for three and a half years, and a severe famine devastated the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them. He was sent instead to a foreigner—a widow of Zarephath in the land of Sidon. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, but the only one healed was Naaman, a Syrian.”

28 When they heard this, the people in the synagogue were furious. 29 Jumping up, they mobbed him and forced him to the edge of the hill on which the town was built. They intended to push him over the cliff, 30 but he passed right through the crowd and went on his way.

Why were those in the synagogue so angry?

It is here that Alistair gives the following maxim (in a paraphrase):

The salvation which Jesus proclaimed they [the Gentiles] need, but don’t deserve.

and

The salvation which Jesus proclaims we [the Jews] deserve, but do not need.

Brilliant!  I am not sure if this is his own idea or if it has been passed down, but this is the essence of one of the primary early church debates – How do the Gentiles fit into God’s plan of salvation.

The legalists knew the Gentiles needed the One True God, but could not comprehend them receiving it simply by faith.  Surely, they must conform…look, walk and talk like us.

The legalists also knew that Jesus’ teachings bothered them.  They were just too easy, too open compared to what they knew the religious life to be.

As a result, they believed that they deserved what Jesus was offering, but did not want it as he presented it.

Alistair Begg continues by making the comparison with modern Christians:

Surely those outside the church need Jesus, but they don’t deserve it…just look at how they live.

We Christians deserve salvation, look how obedient we have been!  We just want it to look like something we would design…a nice orderly, religion that can be left at church on Sundays.

I thought this to be quite a good, though basic, summary of one of the earliest debates among the church – that of inclusion of “outsiders” and how that works out in practice.

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