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True Israel

“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah." Jeremiah 31.31

Establishing one's identity is as much about defining what one is not, as about stating claims about who one is. In his 'Dialogue with Trypho' Justin Martyr locks horns with the most eloquent Jew of his day, who may have been an historical character, though there is no proof of his existence. Swedish scholar, Mikael Tellbe, highlights three assertions made by Justin during the course of their debate, which are crucial to emerging Christian identity.

First, he sweeps away the relevance of traditional Jewish boundary markers, such as circumcision and Sabbath observance. His logic is that these were applied to the Jews on account of their hardness of hearts, not as a reward for good behaviour. Abraham was accounted as righteous before his circumcision and Moses was chosen before Sabbath observance and the other tenets of the Law were given. Because of Jesus' fulfilment of the Law and the New Covenant in his blood, there is no longer any need for circumcision or ritual observance of the Law.

Secondly, Justin accuses Jews of failing to understand their own scriptures. In particular, they have missed the main point which is that Jesus is the Messiah, through whom everything written about the promises of God are brought to fruition. Without that key, Jews are on a hiding to nothing. Trypho's riposte is to point out that, as Jesus was human, he cannot fulfil a divine role. So Martin points him to those passages which confirm that the Messiah will be more than human and which suggest that God was always more complex than his individuality might suggest.

Thirdly, the notion of spiritual birth as indicating the true heirs of God's promises rather than physical descent, is employed by Justin to redefine the notion of God's people, in favour of Christians rather than Jews. Because they have failed to recognise Jesus as Messiah, the Jews have forfeited their right to inherit the legacy of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, while those who have recognised Jesus as Messiah, or Christ (anointed one) hence Christ-ians, now inherit the mantle of being the true Israel.

Justin's influence is to bring about a double departure for Christians. Not only are they identified as being distinct from non-believing pagans, they are also to be considered as separate from non-Christian Jews. On the positive side, having been freed from the burden of ethnicity and equipped with all the privileges of God's favour, Christians are now free and empowered to take the Good News of Jesus to all nations everywhere!



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