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Hear, O Israel, The Lord is One
Do Christians and Jews Worship the Same God?
Some time ago a friend of mine did what I, and those who are not ashamed to be called my brethren, often do—”he went and got hisself in a spot of bother,” as they say. Having consulted no Blue Checks™ and taking no thought for the morrow, he bounded into the Twitterverse and expressed an unpopular opinion concerning God and people. I admit that this was rather careless behavior. If one must express an opinion concerning God, or anything that is not God, one should have sense enough to do some preliminary polling. It is a law fixed as firmly in our cultural canon as those of the Medes and the Persians that no one should hold an opinion—much less express it, without first licking one’s finger and thrusting it sharply in a northerly direction.
What was the offending idea? That the God of the Jew is not personally and unequivocally identical with the God of the Christian. For his crime, my friend (himself a Jewish convert to Christianity) was basically shown the same brutal charity as Adolf Eichmann. Apparently, it isn’t necessary these days to say anything derogatory about Jews, simply mentioning them at all is enough to win for you the title of anti-Semite. This brother, bar mitzvahed and all, was virtually branded a Holocaust Denier.
Drawing Distinctions, Not Swords
If you must object, please do me the kindness of only objecting to that which I am actually asserting.
When we contend that the God of the Jew is not identical with the God of the Christian it does not follow that:
The Old Testament Scriptures are in fundamental contradiction to the New Testament Scriptures;
The God revealed in Israel’s Bible is a different entity from the God which is revealed in the Gospels and Apostolic Writings;
Marcion and his ilk are being rehabilitated for a new era;
Jesus was not a faithful Jew;
This position is either thinly veiled or heavily cloaked Anti-Semitism;
Contemporary Judaism bears no resemblance to the Abrahamic Faith.
Each of these statements is false, erroneous, and roundly rejected.
“The Lord is our God; The Lord is One”
The Shema (Deut. 6:4) served as the cornerstone of Israel’s faith. The adamantine insistence that there was but One True and Living God was the cultic feature which distinguished the Jewish nation from every other religious society in the ancient Near East. This creed was more than creed; it was canon law and the code of life. These words were bound to a person binding that person to them; they were tied to the houses of families and so tied those families together, multiple witnesses establishing the faithful testimony—One God, One People.
At the heart of the creed was the monotheistic revelation. There was but one God; unique, peerless, sui generis. This “oneness” served to differentiate the True God of Israel from the multitudinous false gods of the foreigners. Those “gods” multiplied with the trees of the forests and the rocks hewn from the caverns of the earth. Worshiping them was idolatry and not to be tolerated. Israel’s Lord dwelt alone, above materiality and the machinations of men’s hands. Every failure in Israel’s biblical history resulted from her inability to remember the Shema’s singular truth as the one principle doctrine that must not be forgotten. Either she would go whoring after other gods (violating the First Commandment), or she would worship the One God in ways inconsistent with his nature and against his express wishes (violating the essence of the rest of the Decalogue). Thus, the Shema was the Great Confession upon which all of the commandments hung or fell together.
It is at just this point that the Christian finds the crux of his argument. The God who fetched Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees, chatted with him on the plains of Mamre, swore oaths of stars and sand and seed; the God who called up Moses from a telephone bush on the backside of nowhere to give him directions to Canaan; the God who anointed kings and appointed prophets; the God who made himself known in whirlwinds, wheels within wheels, and sometimes not at all, would make himself known in flesh and blood and tiny wiggling toes. And all of this—is incontrovertible (I Tim. 3:16). Neither does it contradict the Hebraic dogma enshrined in the creedal faith of the Shema. For God had been progressively revealing the mystery of His monotheism as a pluriform oneness, and ultimately as Triune Unity.
In 1 Corinthians 8:6, within a specifically Jewish-style monotheistic argument, Paul adapts the Shema, placing Jesus within it: “For us there is one God—the Father, from whom are all things and we to him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and we through him.” This is possibly the single most revolutionary christological formulation in the whole of early Christianity, staking out a high christology founded within the very citadel of Jewish monotheism.
One may disagree at this point, but one may not do so and be credibly called a Christian. This is simply orthodoxy. And it is just here that the Jewish community famously objected. The Cornerstone had become a stumbling block.
What the Jews regarded as blasphemy, namely, that Jesus Barjoseph was I Am, is the capstone of the Christian Faith. Jesus called the Christ was delivered up to the chief priests, delivered up to Herod, delivered up to Pilate, delivered up to the whims of the jeering mob, delivered up to the tree, delivered up to death, and delivered up from the grave. For a world in need of deliverance, this was received as nothing less than good news. But it is only good news if you believe it.
That which is called “Modern Judaism” was born alongside the Carpenter’s Son and grew with him throughout his life. It was the antithesis of the Abrahamic Hope. Jesus said, “Abraham rejoiced to see my day. He saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). This was not welcomed commentary for the majority of the men of Israel. The unbelieving Jews prided themselves in being both inheritors and executors of Abraham’s estate. Jesus contested their claim by denouncing their familial ties (they were children of the devil rather than Abraham since sonship was tied to faith rather than natural descent) and by superseding them as both Abraham’s true Seed and true Lord (see John 8).
The Abrahamic faith requires of us the confession that there is One God who is Lord. That One Lord reveals himself in the fulness of time as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, a rejection of the God who is the Father of the Lord Jesus entails a rejection of the only God, the God of Abraham and Moses. The God of the Red Sea is the God of the resurrection. As Robert Jenson made a career out of saying, “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel out of Egypt.”
It is unquestionably true that the God of Jacob was the same as the God of Jesus, and that the God who turned rivers to blood was also the same God who turned water into wine. But the Jews who reject Jesus, and thereby reject the One God who is the Father of Jesus, cannot be said to be worshiping the same God without equivocation. The New Testament has much to say about unbelieving Jews, none of which is flattering. John the Revelator records Jesus's messages to churches wherein he denies that those who call themselves Jews are truly Jews, but rather constitute “synagogues of Satan” (Revelation 2:9; 3:9). The New Testament everywhere treats Jesus and His Body as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise. The baptized are sons of Abraham, the Israel of God, the new royal priesthood. However one explains those texts, one must not explain them away. And they force us to ask the difficult questions like: If Jesus is the Seed of Abraham, how can those who refuse to follow Jesus still be a part of the Abrahamic family?
“No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” (I John 2:23)
“The one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:16)
“Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” (John 5:23)
“Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” (John 6:45)
At the end of the day, we are not asking our Jewish friends to embrace a Gentile Creed, or some Avoda Zara; rather, we are beseeching them to return to the faith of their fathers, to become faithful sons and daughters of Abraham who embrace the fulness of the promise with joy.
An Ounce of Prevention
Before I conclude, allow me to briefly respond to a couple of anticipated objections .
Isn’t it true that Jews may worship the same God even if many of the particulars about his person and nature seem contradictory to those of Christians? For instance, here’s an argument sometimes put forth: “Imagine that John believes that the evidence is convincing that Thomas Jefferson (TJ) sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings (SH), and thus John believes that TJ has the property of ‘being a father to several of SH's children.’ On the other hand, suppose Charles does not find the evidence convincing and thus believes that TJ does not have the property of ‘being a father to several of SH's children.’ Would it follow from this that John and Charles do not believe that the Third President of the United States was the same man? Of course not.”
I would answer with an analogy I think better represents the positions: John believes in a Thomas Jefferson who was from Virginia, wrote the Declaration of Independence, lived at Monticello, and was the third President of the United States. Charles believes in a Thomas Jefferson who was not from Virginia, had nothing to do with the Declaration of Independence, lived in Kokomo, was never president, and was born in 1976. As differences pile up, we have to wonder if Charles hasn’t confused Thomas Jefferson with his cousin Bruce from Indiana.
Isn’t the Trinity still problematic? Abraham and David didn’t confess the Trinity. Does this mean that they did not worship the same God as Christians?
Christians believe that the doctrine of the Trinity was progressively revealed throughout the course of redemptive history. Traces might be found here and there in the Old Testament, a fuller expression given in the New Testament, and then finally the doctrine was dogmatized by the Church in her early years. But still that doesn’t fully answer the question.
There is a difference between faithfully believing that which you have received and obstinately resisting that which has been revealed by God. As far as the Old Testament believing Jews are concerned, they received the revelation of God in faith. The unbelieving Jews of the New Testament era (and beyond) rejected the revelation which God gave them. It is the rejection of God as he chose to reveal himself that separates the unbelieving Jews from both their Old Testament forbears and Christians.
The events in the life of Jesus Christ which we commonly refer to as “gospel” are the events by which Christians identify the God we worship. For Christians, the God who is is the God of the gospel. Hear, O Israel, this Lord is our God and He is the only One. In the New Testament, “God” just means “Father, Son, and Spirit” or to say it elsewise “the Father of our Lord Jesus who raised him from the dead by the power of the Spirit.” Those who do not accept this definition do not accept the gospel; and those who do not accept the gospel are talking about some other being than this. As Paul recast the Shema for us in the image of God in Jesus Christ, “For us, there is one God, and one Lord Jesus Christ.”