There’s been a trend in the past few decades to go easy on the theology when teaching kids. At the very time in a human’s life that is most open and receptive to these ideas, teachers have instead backed off. Wimped out, in fact! I don’t know if adults are afraid of damaging a child’s self-esteem with truths about sin and the wages of such (let me assure you, kids are very aware of their own sinfulness until some thoughtless adult teaches them otherwise); or if teachers just don’t understand how important it is to instill these truths at an early age and so have gotten lazy, making do with fluffy stories that present only the happy parts of the Gospel. Whatever the reason, I meet too many children on the cusp of adolescence who know that Jesus died for them but have no concrete understanding of why. If a person does not see his own sinfulness or acknowledge that he deserves death as a result, how can he begin to appreciate the incredible gift of salvation God has offered him?
So, I am going to post a series of lessons aimed at older elementary age children that teach the basics of Christian theology as presented by Paul in the book of Romans. Here’s Lesson One: The Jewishness of the Gospel.
You can divide all the people of the world into two groups: Jews and Gentiles. What are Jews? (Descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It’s important to mention all three, since the Arabs are also descended from Abraham through Ishmael!) What are Gentiles? (Any people who are not Jewish) The Jews are God’s chosen people. God brought them out of Egypt and gave them His Word, His Law, and His Covenant. God did not make any covenants with any other people. The reason for this is that the Jewish people were to be His priests to the rest of the world. They were to be the beacon that drew all other nations to the truth. And most importantly, God planned to send the Messiah through the Jewish people. But the Jewish people failed to keep up their end of the covenant. By the time the Messiah came, the Jews were so prejudiced against non-Jews they would not eat with them or go into their houses. Rather than reach out to the nations of the world, they were staying away from them! Now, God was using Paul and other missionaries to remedy this situation.
Paul was writing this letter to the believers in Rome. What kind of people do you imagine made up the church of Rome, Jews or Gentiles? I imagine they were mostly Gentiles. And apparently, these Gentiles were feeling kind of superior to the Jews, because they were believers in the Jewish Messiah and most Jews were not. I guess I can understand feeling that way. After all, God never promised to send the Messiah to the Gentiles. He was under no obligation to include Gentiles in the plan of salvation. Salvation and Messiah was promised to the Jews. When the Jews, as a whole, rejected their own Messiah and their own means of salvation, God then included the Gentiles in His great plan. That made some of the Gentile believers feel kind of smug: “You don’t believe in your own Messiah, and we do!” Please don’t misunderstand me! ALL of the first believers in Messiah were Jewish. There were many, many Jewish believers who accepted God’s gift of salvation. But the leadership of the Jewish people rejected Jesus and salvation, and so the Jewish people, in general, also rejected Him. Some of the Gentile believers were actually saying that God had rejected His own people and they were no longer included in the great plan of salvation at all. Do you think that could be true? Of course not! Humans may break their promises, but God cannot!
Paul was quick to squash this line of thinking. He wrote, “I ask then, did God reject His people? By no means!” He goes on to explain that, as a Jew himself, he is very aware that God still had a remnant, or portion, of the Jewish people who believed in His Messiah. He compares the people of God to an olive tree in a garden. The root of the tree is salvation. The Jewish people grew up from this root and had many branches. Each branch would be an individual person. Yes, Paul acknowledges that some of the branches have been cut off of this great tree of salvation because many Jews had rejected the Messiah. And as a result, there was plenty of room for other branches from wild olive trees, Gentile branches, to be grafted onto the tree. What does “grafting” mean? When you graft a branch onto a tree, you first cut it off of the branch from a wild olive tree. Wild olive trees do not bear as much fruit as a cultivated, or garden, tree does, and the fruit it does bear is of poor quality. But if you cut off one of its branches and stick it into a slit cut into a cultivated olive tree, it will bond with the garden tree and begin to bear more and better fruit. It will become a part of the cultivated tree. Gentiles are like that. We were “wild”, uncultivated people who could not bear good fruit. But when we believed in the Jewish Messiah, God had mercy on us and grafted us into His cultivated salvation tree. Instead of looking down on the unbelieving Jews, the Gentiles who had graciously been included in God’s plan for salvation should feel sad for them and grateful to God. Here’s how Paul puts it: “If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive branch, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches that have been broken. . . . They were broken off because of unbelief and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant” or proud. And, Paul added, even though some of the tree’s natural branches had been cut off because they did not believe, God is able to graft them back on again if they turn to Him and believe.
Unfortunately, for a very long time the Gentile church did not feel love and gratitude toward the Jewish people. Instead, the church tended to look down on them and mistreat them, even persecute them. The church tried hard to distance itself from the Jews, even going so far as to move our own Easter celebration to a different month if it fell too close to the Jewish feast of Passover, in fear that someone would realize the connection between the two! How grieved God must have been that His own people would treat His chosen ones in such a way.
In the past few decades, the church has repented of this horrible prejudice towards the Jewish people and is now returning to the Jewishness of our beliefs. But it is happening very slowly! We must be careful to always be aware of the Jewish root of the tree we are growing on. Studying the Old Testament in order to understand God’s relationship with His people is an important part of understanding God Himself. And we must always remember to be grateful to the Jewish people for their part in bringing God’s plan of salvation to us.