Know your place! Have you ever heard someone say such a thing? Such a concept could be terribly abused. In more innocent forms, it could be used by parents to try and control their children. In harsher forms, it could be used to promote racism or sexism. The idea of knowing our place has been a tool for those who are in power and those who insist on the status quo. Men have used this for centuries to prevent women from having a greater impact on society. Often times such people have used the Bible to try and keep women in their place. In fact, the Bible has numerous examples of righteous women who stepped out of the place that men had assigned to them. Other times, people of certain races have imposed restrictions on other races, hiding their hateful racism behind a false mask of natural places for the races and need for people to know their place. This has been abused in economic terms. The rich do not mix with the poor and the rich have an interest in keeping the poor poor because they make nice cheap labour to produce all the toys the rich enjoy. Know your place. This has been a tool that has produced so much pain over the years. And yet there is a kernel of truth in the subject. I do not mean in the examples that have been shared. But there is a sense in which we belong to a certain context and that our lives should reflect that context. Used properly, this concept can produce something good in us.
Israel and the Church
What is it that Paul is saying in this passage? Paul is still dealing with the relationship between Israel and the Church. For many centuries, Israel had been the means by which God had acted on earth. Now, God had moved to using the church as the primary means of working. This is not just a historical or a theological move, this is something filled with emotion. While Israel was God’s servant, there was a tremendous amount of pride. It did not matter how powerful militarily that Babylon or Egypt was, Israel was God’s people. It was to Israel that God gave the Law and the prophets, to them that he allowed a Temple to worship him. This made the people of Israel feel very special. However, God made it clear why they were chosen. “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. 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. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today.” (Deuteronomy 7:6–11 ESV) What is God saying here? He is saying that there was nothing special about Israel in the sense that they deserved this selection. God did not look on all the nations and chose Israel because they excelled above all others. God just chose Israel because he is God and he can make such choices. But what else does it say? Does it say that God would never stop using Israel and how does that fit with what we are saying about the church? What God promises is to never break his covenant and the covenant included concepts of obedience and disobedience. God has not broken this covenant. Secondly, when we talk about about God moving from Israel to the church, it would be more accurate to say God moved from ethnic Israel to spiritual Israel. There are a number of passages where the church is described as a spiritual Israel. This might seem like a radical change, but Paul makes it clear that this is the way that God has always operated. Using the example of Elijah, Paul reminds the Romans that there has always been a smaller righteous remnant among the larger group, even with ethnic Israel. What has changed is that now that righteous remnant includes both Jews and Gentiles and not just ethnic Israelites as in the old days. Now it is true that this remnant today is largely Gentile. It was already moving that way in Paul’s day. This could give rise to an unhealthy pride. Just as the Israelites thought of themselves as pretty special, so the largely Gentile church could think of themselves as pretty special. This is where it is important for us to know our place. The kind of place we need to know is where we stand in how God operates. God sovereignly chose Israel to be his servant. God later sovereignly chose the church. Later, God will bring back many of Israel, what that will look like we do not know. In the meantime, the church should know that we are not the masters of what God is doing. God explains it with the example of the olive tree. The olive tree is the human means by which God works. The branches are Israel. God broke off some branches and grafted in some wild olive branches. The wild branches are the Gentile church. Our spiritual life comes not from ourselves but from what came before. We are not better than Jews or anyone else, we are simply grafted in by the grace of God. If we begin to be overcome with pride, we must remember that it is within God’s power to break off those wild branches and rejoin the natural branches. That is not meant to fill us with fear but rather to fill us with humility. We are the church not because we are great or are better than the Jews or are more righteous than anyone else. We are here because of grace. We must know our place in the way God is working and that place is not one that should lead to pride.
Church and the World
It is ironic how the church has responded to what God has done. Christians do not hesitate to point out the sins of Israel. They were warned, they disobeyed and judgment came. We are happy to pick up the pieces and show Israel how it is done. They may have messed things up but God has moved up to a whole new level of skill, ability and character when it comes to the church. Or has he? This is an example of where we really need to know our place. The church is far from perfect. Just about every mistake Israel ever made, we have done many times over. But it is not just a comparison with Israel. The church has looked at itself as being pretty special. We have rights and deserve special respect. At one time the church had an honored position in society and we are upset that has ended. But have we asked why we are upset? Is it because people are turning their back on God or because people are turning their back on the church? Is it because we are special that we think that we need that special place? The truth is that we are not that special. We are in no way better than other people. Very often I hear people speak of the problem with Islam. People look at the terrible things that some Muslims are doing are very critical of people who belong to that religion. Let me make myself clear: I believe Islam is a false religion, I do not believe that Muhammad is a true prophet and I am extremely confident that Christianity is the only faith that accurately points to God. At the same time, we dare not fool ourselves into believing the church has a pure record, while Islam has a constant history of evil and violence. The truth is that just about everything that Christians hate about the actions of certain Muslims, the church has been involved in the same things. Forced conversions? Yes, we did that. Killing of people who convert from our religion? Yes, we did that. Killing of civilians in religious warfare? Yes, we did that. I am not condoning what Muslim extremists do. But we are not innocent. Did you know Protestants killed anabaptists for believing in believer’s baptism? They thought the appropriate means of execution was drowning since these “heretics” wanted to get so wet in baptism. Did you know John Calvin, one of the greatest leaders of the reformation gave the okay for a man to be executed for blasphemy? The man had inadequate view of God and did not believe in the Trinity and so they killed him. What am I saying here? I am not saying that since Christianity is as bad as Islam that all religion is wrong and should be rejected. In the twentieth century, more people were killed under atheistic regimes than all of the religious violence in the previous centuries. The problem is not religion, the problem is humanity. We as Christians are still human and that makes us no better than anyone else. This is what it means for us to know our place. We are sinners who are saved by grace. We are not only saved by grace, we live by grace. We must know our place, not as people who earned our position, but as people graciously invited to minister God’s presence to a needy world. There is no place for pride here. If we truly know our place, if we know who we are in relation to everyone else, we should be humble. Our humility is not based on fear that God is going to punish us but out of natural reflection on who we are.
Know your place! I don’t mean in terms of race, gender or economic status. I mean know your place as a human being. We are the church. We should be glad that we are the church. But we should not be proud, in the sense of thinking ourselves better than others. The church is not better than Israel of old. The church is not better than any other group active today. The church is a group of people forgiven by God and who live by grace. We will make as many mistakes as anyone else. But we have Jesus to pick us back up again. Let us know our place in the situation, but let us know our place in Christ, not as a means of boasting but as a means of living.