Why Was Jesus Born a Jew?
The Devastating Mercy of His Ethnicity
ABSTRACT: The Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, was born as a Jew. What is God’s purpose in the Jewishness of Jesus? The story stretches back to Abraham, and takes us forward to the community of saints from every tribe and language and people and nation. Ultimately, Jesus was born a Jew to devastate every boast in ethnic superiority, and to create one new, joyful, mercy-loving race.
Jesus was born a Jew not only to strip the Christian pretenses from neo-Nazis and the KKK, but also to shut the mouth of all ethnic and racial boasting, including Jewish. He was born a Jew to bring every race and ethnicity to a humbled dependence on mercy. He was born a Jew so that every race would exult in mercy, not degrees of melanin; and every ethnicity would exult in mercy, more than ethnic ways; and every tribe would exult in mercy, more than tribal attributes. Jesus was born a Jew to devastate every boast in ethnic superiority.
Arriving at this conclusion is complicated, even though historically the Jewishness of Jesus has offended all ethnic pride, even Jewish pride. To say it’s complicated, however, is simply to agree with Paul. As soon as he comes to this conclusion, he says, in the next breath, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).
“Jesus was born a Jew to devastate every boast in ethnic superiority. And to create one new, joyful, mercy-loving race.”
That’s Paul’s response to why the God of the universe entangled himself with Jewishness as a way of saving people in every ethnic group. I say “entangled” not because God is caught or confused, but because the interweaving of his saving ways with Jewishness is, from our perspective, “unsearchable.” Its complexities exceed our powers.
Nevertheless, Paul was granted by God to take us up into this mystery farther than any has ever gone. No one has exhausted it. I invite you to go with me into this mystery, at least as far as I can take you in a single article.
‘From Their Race, According to the Flesh’
Jesus was born Jewish. The Samaritan woman at the well said to Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:9). Later Jesus said to her, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).
The Jewishness of Jesus was not incidental for the apostle Paul. He asked, “What advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?” He answered, “Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:1–2). Then he completed his list like this:
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 9:4–5)
The capstone of privileges belonging to the Jews is this: “From their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.” Jesus was born Jewish. And to catapult the privilege out of this world, he is God incarnate — “God over all, blessed forever.” The highest privilege of the Jewish people is that the Son of God was born among them.
“Every mouth is stopped. The boast of every ethnic group is silenced. All are consigned to disobedience.”
So, Jesus was born Jewish. And this was not incidental, but was the high point of Jewish privilege among all the nations. And Paul did not keep it secret, as though it were embarrassing, but flew it like a flag for every Jew and every nation to see.
The question is why. Not just why in the sense of, Where did this come from? But also why in the sense of, Where is it leading? What is God’s purpose in the Jewishness of Jesus? And if it has no present significance, because Jesus is now the Savior of all peoples, why doesn’t Paul let the sleeping dog lie?
Why — Where Did This Come From?
God entangled himself with humanity as an ethnic Jew because two thousand years earlier he had entangled himself with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. “You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham” (Nehemiah 9:7). From then on, the Jews were the privileged covenant people of God. “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). “The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
To be sure, God had in view, from the very beginning, that through Abraham and his descendants God would bless all the nations. “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2–3). But the unique privilege of Israel remained.
For two thousand years, God focused almost all of his saving involvement with the world on Israel, not the nations. “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16). “The Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples” (Deuteronomy 10:15). Forgiveness of sins was provided to the Jews through the prefigured blood of Christ in the sacrifices (Leviticus 4:20; Romans 3:25). And the promise was made to the Jews that the Messiah would come from this people (Isaiah 9:6–7). “The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32–33).
“Jesus was born a Jew to devastate every boast in ethnic superiority.”
This is why Jesus was born Jewish. God had chosen the Jews as “his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 14:2). He had focused his redeeming work on them for two thousand years — not on the Chinese, not on the Africans, and not on the pale Germanic hordes. And “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” — that is, born a Jew (Galatians 4:4).
Why — Where Is This Leading?
But answering the why question in regard to the past only intensifies the why question in regard to the future. What was God’s purpose for entangling himself with Israel by covenant and with a Jewish Messiah by incarnation? Where was this all leading? And why go about it this way?
Clearly, the life and death and resurrection of this Jewish Messiah was leading to the salvation of the Gentiles, the nations. In his lifetime, Jesus said, “Many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” (Matthew 8:11–12). He said to the Jewish leaders, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matthew 21:43). And he ended his ministry with the command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
But salvation was still “from the Jews” (John 4:22). Paul explains how. When Israel rejected Jesus as the Messiah, they were like natural branches broken off of the tree of the covenant with Abraham. When Gentiles believed in the Messiah Jesus, they were like unnatural branches grafted into that Jewish covenant.
If some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. (Romans 11:17–18)
The root supports you! That means God’s commitment to Israel is why you are saved, because you are united to this root.
“There is no thought of Gentiles having one way of salvation, and Jews another. There is one way.”
In other words, there is no thought of Gentiles having one way of salvation, and Jews another. There is one way. Belong to the true Israel — the saved Israel. Paul had made it clear that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6). Natural descent does not make one part of the true Israel. And many who are not descended from Israel are made part of the true Israel — “whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the [Gentiles.] As indeed he says in Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people”’” (Romans 9:24–25).
To be a true Jew is not a matter of ethnicity, but of faith in the Messiah: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly. . . . But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:28–29). Gentiles, in this way, “become Jews.”
This is how the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 is fulfilled: “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’” (Galatians 3:8). This is how Abraham becomes “the father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5; Romans 4:17).
“Salvation is from the Jews” not just because Jesus was Jewish, but because he saves Gentiles by making them full partners of the Jewish inheritance. Through Christ’s blood, “we both [Jew and Gentile] have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you [Gentiles] are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:18–19). The Gentile “strangers” are made full citizens of the true, saved Jewish household. “You [Jew and Gentile] are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29).
‘All Israel Will Be Saved’
Some think this inclusion of the Gentiles in the Jewish inheritance is the final step in God’s dealings with ethnic Israel. It’s not. Paul teaches that when “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in,” then “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25–26). This refers to the ethnic nation as a whole, being converted to Christ at a future time — after “the fullness of the Gentiles” is gathered in.
Some say “all Israel” here does not refer to the ethnic nation but to the total number of the elect, both Jew and Gentile. There are at least five compelling reasons why that does not work. I’ll mention two.
“No nation on earth was worthy of God’s blessing. All deserved destruction.”
First, it is very unlikely that, with only eleven Greek words between, the meaning of “Israel” would change from “ethnic nation” to “elect Jews and Gentiles” (Romans 11:25–26). The first use, virtually all agree, refers to ethnic Israel. Surely, therefore, the second will as well: “A partial hardening has come upon Israel. . . . All Israel will be saved.” So “all Israel” is the ethnic nation that was once partially hardened. One day that people will be saved.
Second, the parallel between the two halves of Romans 11:28 points to “all Israel” as the ethnic nation. The first half of verse 28 says, “As regards the gospel, they [the ethnic people of Israel] are enemies” of God. The second half of the verse says, “But as regards election, they [this same ethnic people who are enemies] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” The point of this verse is to show that even though ethnic Israel now is a covenant-breaking, unbelieving people, that is going to change. The people that are enemies now will be converted later because of election and love. (See also the parallels in Romans 11:12 and 15.)
Why Did He Do It This Way?
Now we are in a position to step back and ask, Why did God go about saving his people from all the nations, including Jews, in this roundabout way?
Let me summarize the roundabout way of God:
1. All of humankind fell into sin and corruption when Adam and Eve rejected the goodness of God in favor of their own wisdom (Genesis 3:6; Romans 5:12). As the variety of ethnic peoples emerged in Genesis 10 and 11, all their individual members were “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). No nation on earth was worthy of God’s blessing. All deserved destruction.
2. As God set in motion a plan of redemption for humanity, he chose Israel as the primary focus of his saving work for two thousand years (Deuteronomy 7:6; Amos 3:2). This election of Israel from all the nations was not owing to any traits in Israel that made them more worthy than other nations. Abraham was an idolater before he was called by God (Joshua 24:2, 14). “Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Romans 3:9).
“The highest privilege of the Jewish people is that the Son of God was born a Jew.”
3. For two thousand years, God offered salvation to Israel (Romans 9:4–5) and foreshadowed the Messiah in Jewish history and Scripture (Luke 24:27). Their repeated response was largely unbelief, as Stephen said: “You stiff-necked people . . . always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you” (Acts 7:51). Or as Paul said, “But of Israel he says [quoting God in Isaiah 65:2], ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people’” (Romans 10:21).
4. The effect of this Jewish unbelief, in spite of great advantages, was to show that the law, without a Redeemer, does not lead to justification, but only to the exposure and increase of sin (Romans 3:20; 5:20). By this experience, the mouth of the whole world is stopped. For, if Israel, with all her advantages, could “not succeed in reaching that law” (Romans 9:31), the other nations should not think things stood better with them. “We know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19).
5. By the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah, the promises to the patriarchs were confirmed, and mercy was thrown open to all the nations. “Christ became a servant to the circumcised . . . in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Romans 15:8–9).
6. A hardening came upon Israel (Romans 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:14), lasting into the twenty-first century. It will remain “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25).
7. During this time — “the times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24) — there will be a great missionary advance to all the nations of the world. “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
8. When “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in . . . all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25–26).
9. Christ will return and establish his kingdom (Romans 11:26).
This is the roundabout way God planned to redeem his people from every ethnic group, including a final conversion of “all Israel” — a whole generation brought en masse to faith at the end of this age. Why such a roundabout way? Here is Paul’s summary answer in Romans 11:30–32:
Just as you [Gentiles] were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their [Jewish] disobedience, so they [Jews] too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you [Gentiles] they [Jews] also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all [Jews and Gentiles] to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
Condensing this summary, we can say,
Gentile nations lived in disobedience after the fall.
So God chose Israel.
Israel lived in disobedience in spite of all her advantages.
So God overflowed with mercy to the Gentile nations.
This mercy to the nations will result with great mercy in Israel’s conversion.
Therefore, all peoples are utterly dependent on mercy, not merit.
That’s complicated. Strange. Roundabout. So much so that the next thing out of Paul’s mouth is this: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).
Final Aim: Every People Humble and Hoping in Mercy
What then is the final aim of such a roundabout salvation? Paul puts it like this: “God has consigned all [Jews and Gentiles] to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32). Paul had already said that the goal was “so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19). That’s the negative goal. Every ethnic group humbled because of their disobedience.
“God’s commitment to Israel is why you are saved, because you are united to this root.”
The Jews are humbled because, in spite of all their advantages, they are like broken off branches, with Gentiles taking their place in the Abrahamic covenant by faith alone (Romans 11:19; 9:30–31). Gentile peoples are humbled because they stand only by faith (Romans 11:20) and because it is the Jewish root that supports them, not the other way around (Romans 11:18). You have to become a “Jew” in order to be saved (Galatians 3:7). But no Jew is saved by being an ethnic Jew. For not all Israel is Israel (Romans 9:6). “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9).
Every mouth is stopped. The boast of every ethnic group is silenced. All are consigned to disobedience. Each is made to swallow its pride. Gentiles must become Jews (Nazis and KKK included) in order to be saved. And Jews must renounce all dependence on Jewishness and join the Gentiles in dependence on mercy.
One Mercy-Dependent, Mercy-Cherishing Race
Jesus was born a Jew — and every other part of God’s “unsearchable” and “inscrutable” wisdom was put in place — to achieve this purpose. To shut the mouth of all ethnic and racial boasting, including Jewish, and to bring every race and ethnicity to a humbled dependence on mercy.
Christ was born Jewish so that every race would exult in mercy, not in degrees of melanin; and every ethnicity would exult in mercy, more than in ethnic ways; and every tribe would exult in mercy, more than in tribal attributes. Jesus was born a Jew to devastate every boast in ethnic superiority. And to create one new, joyful, mercy-loving race.