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Conformity to the Image of Christ

Written by Prof Johan Malan.

During His creation, the Triune God, Elohim, said: “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). This likeness refers in the first instance to the spiritual part of our existence. “God is a Spirit” (John 4:24) and He created a being with an immortal spirit and soul, with whom He could communicate. Because of the Fall, man died spiritually. However, through spiritual rebirth God wishes to quicken fallen man, and to associate closely with him by living in him and making home with him (John 14:23).

Because man was made for fellowship with God it is imperative that, spiritually and morally, he puts off all the depraved characteristics which were brought about by the Fall, and puts on the holy nature of God (Eph. 4:22-24; Rom. 12:2). As a moral being he must become like God, therefore the command: “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16). Other moral attributes of God that must also be pursued are love, charity, mercy, impartiality, forgivingness and hatred of sin.

However, conformity to the image of God do not include His unique natural attributes such as omnipotence, omnipresence, inscrutableness, and omniscience; consequently, it was never intended that human beings should become little gods. We have many limitations in these areas and are deeply dependent upon the Lord to help us in our weaknesses, to endue us with power from on high, and to give us divine wisdom in order to be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17).

The coming of Christ

With the incarnation of Jesus Christ a practical example was given to us on how we should live as children of God in a sinful human society. He did not only offer salvation to us but also showed us how to live worthy lives as His followers:  “As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him” (Col. 2:6). Although many people try to shun the need of a holy life they should not do it: “He who says that he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:6; cf. Phil 2:15). In His capacity as Lord we are united to Him in faith and are also called to a daily life in Him. He said: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit” (John 15:5). That is the secret of a victorious, fruitful life.

Our identification with the Lord Jesus is so intimate that we are called by His Name: “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26). They are also called the assembly or church of Christ (Matt. 16:18; Acts 20:28; Eph 1:22), believers (Acts 5:14; Gal. 3:22), saints (Eph. 1:1), children of God (John 1:12), disciples of Christ (Matt. 28:19; John 8:31), followers of Christ (Matt. 8:10; Eph. 5:1-2), servants of Christ (Matt. 24:45-51; Mark 10:43-45; Luke 19:13), members of the body of Christ (Rom. 12:5; Eph. 5:30), members of His bridal congregation (2 Cor. 11:2), and, after our union with Him, the wife of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7); subsequently, in the millennium, we will be kings ruling with Christ (2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 5:9-10; 20:4).

To be a Christian is a much higher calling than being a member of the chosen people, Israel. That is the reason why the Messianic Jews in the New Testament also become members of the church of Christ. The terms “church” and “Israel” should never be confused as they refer to different groups of people.

Jewish identity

Israel is a distinct people with a unique calling, composition and future. The covenant between them and God includes the promise of a future kingdom on earth, in the land of Israel. Such promises to Israel can never be transferred to the church. There is no justification for describing Christians in the New Testament as Jews or Israelites, or even as the spiritual Israel. The true, spiritual Israel (Rom. 9:6; Gal. 6:16) refers to the saved Jews, and is a term which is used to distinguish between them and the natural, unsaved Jews.

The Jewish identity of Jesus relates to His incarnation in the house of David in the tribe of Judah. It emphasises His human nature and not His divine nature. As God He is infinitely higher than Israel, and for that reason even his earthly father David had to call Him “Lord” (Matt. 22:41-45) when prophetically referring to Him. The kingdom to which He calls people is far superior to the kingdom of Israel, being not of this world (Matt. 7:21; John 18:36). We are members of His heavenly kingdom when we become His followers – not members of Israel’s earthly kingdom – so our citizenship is in heaven from where we expect the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:20).

Jesus Christ did not reveal to us a person in His lineage of earthly fathers (e.g. Joseph, David or Abraham) but His heavenly Father. He said to Philip: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). He has a heavenly rather than a Jewish identity to share with us.

We must not make the mistake of becoming conformed to the earthly, Jewish identity of Jesus by endeavouring to practice the religious customs of Israel and calling ourselves Jews or Israelites. He did not say: “He who has seen Me has seen a Jewish Messiah,” but: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” The principle of man’s conformity to his Creator was determined long before the existence of a Jewish nation, and we should observe it. Paul was very anxious for the Messianic Jews, until Christ was formed in them (Gal. 4:19). That didn’t mean that they should become more Jewish, but more Christ-like, and Christ is in the form of God (Phil. 2:6). “In Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9), and that was His most important revelation to believers.

A serious confusion of identity, as well as the danger of a legalistic life, results when Gentile believers see themselves as Israelites. One of the reasons for the acceptance of a Jewish identity is a wrong perception of the symbolism of the olive tree which is used in Romans 11. The root and trunk of this tree is Christ, as He is the Root and Offspring of David (Rev. 22:16). Only the branches of the olive tree refer to the Jewish people, as God has called the patriarchs and their descendants to be His own special people who live holy lives before Him (Lev. 11:44). We should clearly understand that during our salvation we are grafted into Christ – not into Israel. The description of the olive tree correlates with that of the vine, in which the stem refers to Christ and the branches to believers from all nations who have been grafted into Him by faith.

The unbelieving Jews are the branches that have been broken off from the tree, while Gentile believers have been grafted into the tree (Rom. 11:15-22; cf. Heb. 4:1-3). Being Jewish only didn’t help the branches to survive – they were removed because of not believing in the Messiah. They were replaced by believing Gentiles. But this does not in any way render believers from the Gentile world Jews or Israelites – they become Christians who are in Christ. We know that the natural branches of the olive tree (Israel) will be grafted back into the tree in the end-time (Rom. 11:23-24) the moment when they accept the Messiah as their Saviour (Zech. 12:10; 13:9).

All believers are, spiritually speaking, one in the Messiah as we are all children of God. How should we understand the common spiritual bond among believers from all nations? Paul says: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This simply means that Christ treats all people equal, whether Jew or Greek, rich or poor, male or female. In Him we are all brothers and sisters. But this does not mean that cultural, linguistic, political, economic and gender differences are abolished in human societies. Since God has determined the boundaries of the nations (Acts 17:26), Christians should not despise, abandon or change their national and cultural identity. God doesn’t make a Greek person a Jew, as He changes nobody’s ethnic identity. Our cultural and linguistic differences will prevail until the end of this dispensation (cf. Rev. 5:9-10; 7:9). Despite our differences, we should not despise other groups or nations as we are debtors to all of them as far as the gospel of Christ is concerned – also to the unsaved Jews (Rom. 1:14-16). Appreciate the fact that you are a German, French or Zulu believer – don’t despise your own identity, and don’t pretend that you are a Jew because Jesus was born in a Jewish society. Jesus Christ, as the Son of God, is the light of all the nations!

Legalism

The biggest danger attached to Gentile believers who see themselves as Jews, is that Israel’s religious laws and traditions are followed by such people. They effectively depart from the doctrine of grace by following the precepts of the law. They start observing the Sabbath, blow the ram’s horn, attend orthodox Jewish feasts in which Jesus is not recognised as Messiah, and attend weekly services in synagogues on Saturdays. There are even some of the men who are circumcised as that is the Old Testament sign of Israel’s covenant with God.

The fact is that a large part of Israel’s religious practices only have symbolic value as a shade of future things, pending the coming of the Messiah in whom they were all fulfilled and therefore abolished in their original, shadowy form. Paul says that the Jewish feasts, Sabbaths and related practices “are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Col. 2:16-17).

Although the Lord Jesus observed these shadowy practices, that was only during the period before His atoning death on the cross by which He fulfilled the entire law. Circumcision, which was a highly regarded sign of the covenant in Israel, to which Jesus was also subjected as a child, was, after His crucifixion and resurrection, described as an unacceptable act of unbelief in the finished work of the Messiah: “I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing… You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:2,4). Why this strong warning? Paul says to the Messianic Jews that before Christ came, they were kept under guard by the law, for the faith which would afterwards be revealed. Therefore, the law was their tutor to bring them to Christ. “But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal. 3:23-25).

All the Old Testament laws, including the Sabbath and the complex set of institutions which form part of the temple service, were fulfilled in the Messiah. His New Testament law of love gives expression to the lofty spiritual objectives of the law, but makes no provision that a single one of its shadowy institutions may be perpetuated in Messianic times. If these institutions are observed during the age after the coming of the Messiah, those who do so active deny Him.

Paul admonished the Jewish Christians to leave the camp of legalistic Judaism and to follow the suffering Messiah who was rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious: “Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Heb. 13:13). Jews who wanted to serve God had to leave the camp of Orthodox Judaism, openly identify with the Messiah, and bear His reproach. If they didn’t believe that He was the promised Messiah who came from God, and was Himself God, they would die in their sins (John 8:24). The continuation of their sacrifices, Sabbaths and other typological practices, in stead of accepting and serving the Messiah, wouldn’t bring them one step closer to the kingdom of heaven.

Christian nationalism

We must strive after the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14). Believers in every nation should exert themselves for the establishment of national Christian institutions, e.g. a Christian constitution, Christian education, Christian morality, as well as other Christian principles to guide the lives of people. Every nation should institute Christian reforms without imitating Israel or any other nation. Christian principles have a universal application. In a Messianic prophecy about Jesus, God said: “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). The spiritual and cultural principles of God’s salvation apply to all peoples everywhere.

These Messianic principles also apply to Israel. But, thus far as a nation, they still reject them and keep on clinging to the obsolete shadows of the law. In the eyes of the Lord, Israel has become spiritually futile. God says: “The house of Israel has become dross to Me… Because you have all become dross, therefore behold, I will gather you in the midst of Jerusalem… and blow on you with the fire of My wrath… then you shall know that I, the LORD, have poured out My fury on you” (Ezek. 22:18-22). Dross, or scum, refers to the worthless layer of froth which is separated from metals in melting. That is how God describes the result of the spiritual deterioration that would occur in Israel because of rejecting their only Saviour. They would become worthless and perverted, while sustaining the shadows of the law during Messianic times, but to no avail. Having rejected the Messianic substance to which the shadows of the law pointed, the Israeli nation continues to walk in darkness and are consequently heading for the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jer. 30:7).

Those who still uphold the institutions of the old covenant are like people who walk around with candles in broad daylight, saying they are waiting for sun to arise. The Sun of Righteousness is the Messiah, who came long ago as the light of the world. However, some people in Israel and the nations are spiritually so blinded that they cannot and will not recognise the Messiah. We must proclaim the Messiah’s saving grace with great boldness, also to Israel, since “he who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12).

Feasts

As far as the Jewish feasts are concerned, Christians may celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, just as they keep the Christian Passover, the Resurrection Feast on the Sunday after Passover (also on every Sunday), and Pentecost which is annually celebrated ten after the Ascension day of Jesus. These feasts are clearly centring on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, as well as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. On a Christian Feast of Tabernacles, the Second Coming of Christ, the gathering of the harvest among all nations, as well as the establishment of His kingdom on earth, should be central themes. Orthodox Jewish festivals and other religious meetings in which there are various symbolic rituals that may have been commendable in Old Testament times, have lost all their significance when the religious leaders of Israel failed to notice their fulfilment during the coming and atoning death of the Messiah. To keep on observing these feasts in their original form after Messiah, expressly and deliberately demonstrates the denial and rejection of Jesus as Messiah by those concerned. No Christian may have any part in these acts of unbelief.

We can only provoke Israel to jealousy (Rom. 11:11) – something that we should be doing – if we serve God heartily by celebrating the resurrection feast of the Messiah (which definitely did not occur on the Sabbath) and to walk in the light so that the joy and peace of the Messiah can be seen in us. Jews who are serious about serving God still have to come out from the camp of Judaism to the rejected Messiah if they really wish to experience His joy and peace in their hearts. Then they will become Messianic Jews who will be cast out by the orthodox Jews, but through their example they will draw many others from the darkness of unbelief and legalism to the marvellous light of the Messiah. Only in Him will they truly be free from the bondage of sin and the yoke of the law, as the law of God’s love will be written on the tablets of their hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Do you want to meet the spiritual needs of Israel? Then walk in the full light of the Messiah, fulfil your calling to be a witness of the Saviour, and have no communion with anything which does not honour the Messiah. Shortly, we will appear before Him to give account of our lives after salvation (2 Cor. 5:10).