The New Testament connects the coming of Jesus to Israel’s hopes of redemption (Luke 1:50-55, 68-75; 2:25, 38; 21:20-28; 24:21; and Acts 1:6-8). Jesus’ followers expected the end of the age would bring God’s promised redemption of Israel (Acts 1:6). They called their fellow Jews to repent as part of God’s final redemption, the resurrection of the dead, and the return of Jesus.
Jesus’ followers faced the challenge of their claim of His Messiahship. While they pointed to His resurrection as proof of God’s vindication and exaltation of Him, Rome still ruled the land of Israel and nothing had changed for the people of Israel. Ancient Judaism believed at the end of the age non-Jews would forsake their idols and turn to worship the God of Israel but remain non-Jews. The inclusion of the Gentiles into Jesus’ movement connected to this expectation as evidence that the end of the age had come.
Paul explained God’s grace to the Gentiles in Romans. Israel’s disobedience created an opportunity for the inclusion of the Gentiles into Israel, being grafted onto the olive tree of Israel. He expected non-Jews to remain non-Jews, in other words not to circumcise, but he instructed them to live Jewishly in their morality and belief in the God of Israel. They had received God’s Spirit as sons and daughters, proof God accepted them; therefore, they should walk according to the Spirit producing the fruit of the Spirit.
Paul believed the proof to Israel that Jesus was God’s Messiah was the turning of the non-Jews from their idols and worshipping the God of Israel but remaining Gentiles. By the Gentiles walking by the Spirit, living Jewishly, they testified to the end of the age and God’s fulfillment of His redemptive promises to Israel in Jesus. When Israel sees the Gentiles doing this, they will repent, which will bring the resurrection of the dead (Romans 11:15), and thus, all Israel will be safe (Romans 11:26).
To describe his position, Paul used the image of an olive tree. The non-Jews he represented by a single wild olive branch grafted on to the olive tree, which represented Israel. He reminded his Gentiles readers that “it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you” (Romans 11:18). Paul understood the horticulture of olives well. He never implied the single wild olive branch supplanted the tree, nor did he imagine a blossoming branch grafted onto a withering root.
The New Testament never indicates the followers of Jesus changed their initial proclamation: the coming of Jesus heralds the redemption of Israel. Christianity has historically struggled with this reality, trying to understand God’s relation to the Church and Israel. But those problems are ours, not the early followers of Jesus, including Paul.
Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.