So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19–21)
The Jews were the people of God but were not the church. The church is made up of the people of God, but being Jewish isn’t a requirement. How does this work? Even theologians disagree sharply about calling believers from the Old Testament “the church.” What does the Bible say about this confusion?
After Jesus ascended, the Holy Spirit came upon His followers and the church was formed. It is also called the Body of Christ. Even though many consider themselves part of the church because they attend a building every Sunday, only genuine believers belong to the Body of Christ and the family of God. But what about the believers described in the Old Testament?
At first, this was not a problem for when the church began, all Christians were Jewish. But soon, the Holy Spirit changed that. He sent Peter to a Roman centurion who was seeking God. When Peter arrived, he said, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” (Acts 10:28–29)
After this Gentile explained he wanted to hear from God, Peter said, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:34–38) and continued to explain the Gospel.
Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit falling on the Gentiles and was amazed. He declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Then he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:44–48)
After a time, the Lord began sending His people to the Gentiles. The Old Testament shows that this was supposed to happen. God intended the Jews to take word of His saving grace to the world. However, they grew inward and saved it for themselves, even considered outsiders as unclean and unfit to hear it. Only when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit did they realize all were unclean and unfit. No one is special, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. God’s grace was for everyone, and anyone could belong to Him.
This was difficult for the Jews. They bore the mark of circumcision designating them as God’s people, but now the Gentiles would be included, and circumcision was not necessary. What did that mean? The Bible says that their circumcision only had value if they were actually obeying God. If they didn’t, what good was the mark? It also says, if someone obeyed Him without this mark, would not they be the same as someone who had it? The conclusion: “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” (Romans 2:25–29)
It was always like this. The people of God were marked by the heart and obedience, not by being Jewish and circumcised. The Holy Spirit was breaking down that wall, a division that God had never intended to be there. Instead, by the power of the Holy Spirit, those who believed in Him became one body: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:13)
This results in an incredible merger: “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:26–29)
That is, the people of God are (and always have been) distinguished by faith in Him, not by nationality, culture, physical descent, or what they do apart from faith to try and please God. The OT mark of circumcision was an external metaphor to demonstrate putting off all trust in the flesh, even become dead to its demands, and become alive in Christ. This is a circumcision “made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:11–12)
Again, this can be confusing, but the plan of God is really quite simple. If anyone is in Christ Jesus, they are a child of God, a member of the household of God and the Body of Christ. It isn’t about church buildings, but about a community, a family, a relationship to the people of God. Having all that requires no other criteria but faith in Christ and having a changed life through the power of the Holy Spirit.