Jesus Christ fulfilled the prophecies and the promises of what God had revealed to his chosen people, the Jews, long ago in the First Testament. This is why there remains such a close connection between Judaism and Catholicism, two religions rooted in biblical revelation and faith in one eternal and saving God who in ways great and small draws all mankind to himself.
Jesus himself and his closest followers, including the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Paul, were Jewish, members of the chosen people through whom God first spoke. The first Christian communities began as Jewish quahals (gatherings) established in antiquity in cities throughout the Roman Empire. Yet many of the Jews at the time of Christ did not believe that he was the Son of God; they were waiting for another sort of savior. And so Judaism and Christianity separated, a split made more decisive by the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70. Today commonalities exist—we pray to the same God of our Fathers and revere the holy book that contains the truths of our faith—but the religions remain divided
For Paul, this was a biting and painful reality, to see so many of his fellow Israelites not accepting Jesus as the Christ. (I covered this subject in my previous column, posted Friday, August 5; but it bears repeating for it is a premise of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.) But Paul took comfort by looking at the situation from God’s-eye-view, as best as could any man or women struggling to understand the Lord’s inscrutable plan. The saint’s vision was enlarged by revelations from God that showed him the way to the Truth: that Christ died on the cross to save mankind. The divine irony is that some of the Jews actually created the means for Paul to preach about the one true God and father of Jesus Christ to gentiles, non-Jews who lived in the waterless well of paganism and, who practiced non-revealed and finite superstitious practices. Paul saw God at work even through the disbelief exhibited by some of the chosen people; he saw their rejection turned into salvation for all the nations of the earth. And Paul remained confident that God, in the end, would rescue Paul’s brethren in addition to his other royal nation, the Church. Paul didn’t understand fully how this would happen, but he trusted God to take care of the future. Paul tried to think long-term like God, and the apostle knew that he was planting a harvest he might never personally reap but he wanted to provide for future generations of believers in Christ. He was a good spiritual father.
In Romans 11 Paul addresses the question: Has God abandoned his chosen people? He answers unequivocally no! In fact, Paul believed that the entrance of so many Gentiles into the new faith would eventually make Israel ‘jealous’ and draw more Jews into the faith. Call it reverse psychology or common sense becoming uncommon sense or simply jumping on the bandwagon but the gifts and call from God are irrevocable and his plan will not be frustrated by the hard-heartedness of a few, or the many for that matter. Just as the disobedient Gentiles received mercy, so disobedient citizens of the nation of Israel would receive mercy. There is more than enough of God’s mercy to go around. This Paul knew from personal experience and from more than thirty years of active ministry in churches he founded in villages and cities throughout the Mediterranean world.
Paul was proud to have been commissioned to be the “apostle to the gentiles.” Yet he continued to argue on behalf of Israel—the reversal of fortunes was clear: it was because of the rejection of the Gospel that Paul turned to the gentile mission; due to the acceptance of the gentiles the Jews would be converted, they would be won over. Paul felt confident of this because he knew that he had been prepared by God to proclaim “the inscrutable riches” of the kingdom. If Christianity were to take root in the world, then someone would have to bridge the gap between the gentiles and the Jews. Where to find such a remarkable man? In the providence of God, Paul of Tarsus was selected. “I am the apostle to the gentiles, I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them. … The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:13, 29).
Paul was an Israelite, descended from Abraham, and tracing lineage from the tribe of Benjamin, the first tribe to cross the Red Sea (Ps 68:28), a family including such prominent members as King Saul and the prophet Jeremiah. Paul was born in the city of Tarsus in the Roman province of Cilicia in the year of our Lord 8. (When Paul was born, Jesus was between twelve and fourteen years old, living his anonymous years in Nazareth.) Paul’s commission to become an apostle, however, happened before time, and this aided him in his ability to see from God’s perspective—the saint received his own God’s-eye-view of the world. Before the words “in the beginning” were written in the Bible, God, who set Paul apart and called him through his grace, and revealed his Son as a mandate to preach the Word, wrote the life, ministry, and legacy of Paul in eternity. “The gospel preached to me is not of human origin, for I did not receive it from a human being, nor was I taught it; rather it came to me through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12). Paul uses such language, the language of prophecy, for he speaks of himself as one who has been ordained before time.
Even Genesis promised to deliver Paul to the world long ago. The patriarch Jacob foresaw that Paul would arise from the tribe of Benjamin, “a ravenous wolf” that devours his prey each morning. The warlike and waspish character of Benjamin’s family carried through the First Testament into the Acts of the Apostles where Paul is introduced as the tormentor of the Church, storming the houses of the men and women followers of The Way and hauling them off to the authorities for imprisonment. This is divine irony at its sharpest. As a young man Paul scattered the flocks of the Lord’s sheep as the persecutor of Christianity. But in the evening, that is, later in Paul’s life, he fed the sheep as the gentle shepherd carrying the ewes in his bosom and leading them with care. Through his letters and the traditions regarding his life we can still hear his voice calling us back into the fold.
By the grace of God Paul became the prophet of the Messianic Age, speaking on behalf of Author of Paul’s life story. The prophets of the original covenant attempted to motivate their people to have faith in the Lord and so divert disaster, the destruction of their nation. Paul also called the nations to a faith in a power beyond imagination, greater than all the pagan gods of the earth. In describing his encounter with Christ, Paul does not use the term “conversion”; rather, Paul speaks of theophany as what it was, a revelation, when, like Moses he saw the face of God (in the second person of the Trinity) and lived. Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Paul the servant of God was conscious of having been chosen from before birth to proclaim God’s message of salvation for the gentiles and Jews. Paul prayed for and preached for the recovery of the lost tribes of Israel and the repatriation of the exiles and through him God extended salvation to the world.