A Seat at the Table

  • Nathan Schneider
Dog begging for food while person eats at the table

There are a surprising number of churches in Anchorage. I’m not sure what the actual count would be, but you can be sure it numbers in the hundreds. There are some streets in particular around town that seem to be prime church real estate. There may be as many as ten different churches lining roads like Jewel Lake, Muldoon, and even Huffman. Each church—given the assumption that it’s a true church, which is to say it is founded on the gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone, a disclaimer we have to make especially in this day and age—each church is, according to a biblical theology of the church, its own local expression of the body of Christ. That’s the way the New Testament talks about local churches. Each one is the body of Christ located in that particular piece of real estate, in that particular city.

Now, I think we’re all very used to the presence of churches in our day-to-day lives. Even if you didn’t grow up going to a church, they were still there, dotting the landscape of every American town and city. As Christians who belong to a particular local church, we’re all the more familiar with them. They’re a part of our weekly, perhaps even daily, lives. In fact, churches are so ubiquitous that I think 99% of us have gotten too used to the presence of the local church. It’s become too familiar, too much a routine that we take for granted the presence of the church and its meaning in these “latter days” (1 TIm. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1).

The Great Mystery

The fact is, the church wasn’t always a given. There used to be a time when there wasn’t a church on every corner, let alone in every town. Actually, there was a time when there wasn’t a single church in existence. I don’t think we appreciate that very much today. The presence of the church is a novel thing. It was unexpected. The church, in other words, is an eye-opening reality for anyone who lived before Acts chapter 2.

According to Ephesians 2, the church is comprised of individual Christians, each one made alive by God from their spiritual death and raised to new life in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:1–10). And each one of these individual believers is reconciled through the blood of Jesus Christ to God and to each other (Eph 2:14–16) and placed into a new humanity, where the old distinctions that separated out the old humanity—the distinctions of Jew and Gentile—have been eliminated so that both are being built up together into a temple in which God himself dwells (Eph. 2:19–22).

This great reality is what Paul calls “the mystery of Christ.” Now, the word “mystery” in English comes from the Greek term musterion, which speaks of something hidden in God and which no human is capable of figuring out on their own. The only reason we know what it is is because God lets us in on the mystery. In other words, “mystery” in the New Testament is always in open secret—something that was kept hidden but is now openly revealed by God. Listen to Paul’s words:

When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Eph. 3:4–6).

In other words, the mystery of the church is not that God was going to save the Gentiles. That’s clearly not something that was unexpected. God made it clear throughout redemptive history his plan to provide salvation and redemption to humanity. He established that promise in the garden after humanity fell, promising ultimate victory over the serpent through the offspring of Eve. He promised that through Abraham all the families of the earth would be blessed, and he purposed to accomplish that through the chosen offspring of Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3). The fact that the Gentiles would experience the salvation of God was something that shows up in every major portion of the Old Testament, from the Law (Deut. 34:43), to the Prophets (Isa. 11:10) and the Writings (Pss. 18:49; 117:1). In fact, Paul quotes these passages in support of his argument that Christ came to save Gentiles (Rom. 15:8–12).

Gentiles being saved is no mystery, and it certainly wouldn’t have surprised anyone familiar with the Bible during the time of Christ. So what’s the mystery? What is it that God “did not make known to the sons of men in other generations (Eph. 3:5)? Or as he puts it in Romans 16:25, “the mystery that was kept secret for long ages.” Or as Colossians 1:26 phrases it, “The mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” What is this great mystery only just revealed in this current dispensation? Simply this: the church. The church is the great revealed mystery, hidden from all human knowledge and indiscernible until God made it know on his own sovereign and perfect timetable. The church is, as one theologian has put it, the only biblical doctrine in all the Bible not found in the Old Testament.

Two Made One

So what makes the church so unique and so special that it can be called the great “mystery of Christ”? What is it about Christ’s church that sets it apart from everything else he’s done throughout redemptive history? Well, to make sense of this and gain some appreciation of what the church really is, we need to consider how Paul describes the church in Ephesians 2 and 3. He begins by outlining the former plight of the Gentiles. They were socially ostracized by God’s people, captured by the contemptuous phrase “uncircumcised.” This captures a bit of the hostility that existed between Jew and Gentile. And it was mutual. The Jews didn’t like the Gentiles, and the Gentiles didn’t like the Jews. But Gentiles had other problems than just social alienation. They were “separated from Christ” and “alienated from citizenship in Israel,” and with no organic participation in the “covenants of promise.” There was no hope for them because they rejected God (Eph. 2:11–12). He describes them later in chapter 4 as futile in their thinking, “alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph. 4:17–18). He calls them “callous” and “given…to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (4:19). These are not good things, if I may understate the problem a little bit.

Now, before the advent of the Lord Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection, salvation was certainly possible for the Gentile. Notable examples in the Old Testament exist of how Gentiles have found hope and life and redemption in God. Certain Gentiles have even been able to participate in the corporate life of God’s people Israel. But there’s a catch to that. They couldn’t remain Gentile. Jewish proselytism was the process a Gentile went through in order to enter into the Jewish nation and experience the benefits of being a part of the people of God. It involved abandoning one’s Gentile identity, coming under the Mosaic law and identifying oneself ostensibly as a Jew. This is perhaps no more clearly seen than Ruth’s words when she vowed, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). What she was saying is, “I no longer identify as a Moabite. I am disavowing that national and ethnic identification and I am willingly coming completely into the Israelite people.

That was how it used to be. Of course, salvation has always been by faith alone, and many Gentiles have expressed saving faith and experienced the grace of God leading up to the time of Christ. But none have ever experienced the benefits of being counted among the people of God without going through this proselytism. That is, until five weeks after the death and resurrection of Christ, when Peter preached his famous Pentecost sermon and the Holy Spirit descended upon the believers and the church of Jesus Christ was born. On that day, redemptive history took a monumental step forward and entered into a new era.

What was born on that Pentecost day in Acts 2 was a new humanity—a new “man” as Paul calls it in Ephesians 2:15. And this new man is comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, each with the same privilege and access and blessing. Where Gentiles were once “stranger and aliens,” now they are “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). I like how he puts it later in chapter 3—”The mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirsmembers of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6).

What does all that mean? What significance does that have? Well, if we want to really answer that question and truly feel the significance of that statement, we have to consider what it would have meant for a Gentile in the first century. Let me illustrate that monumental change with another biblical example.

A Seat at the Table

In Matthew’s gospel, there’s a story in chapter 15 that’s always fascinated me. After Jesus’ hostile confrontation with the Jews over their legalism and their elevation of man-made regulations over and against God’s word, and after he instructs his disciples on the human heart as the true source of defilement (as opposed to food or ceremonial washings), Jesus withdraws into Gentile territory where Mark notes that didn’t want anyone to know where he was (Mark 7:24). Nevertheless, his presence is soon discovered by a woman who begs him to help her demon-possessed daughter. Now, the devil’s in the details (no pun intended), because while Mark simply calls her a “Syrophoenician woman,” Matthew ups the rhetoric by calling her a “Canaanite woman.” Now, I think this is hugely important to the story, particularly coming off the heels of Jesus’ teaching on defilement. The Canaanites were the ancient enemies of Israel, and the fact that she’s called such is meant to up the tension and explain why the disciples acted the way they did.

This woman begins by crying out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David,” and the language of the text indicates that this is an incessant cry she continues to repeat throughout this curious exchange. But perhaps the most curious things about it is what Jesus does—or doesn’t do. Matthew says, “But he did not answer her a word.” We’re not yet told why, and the immediate knee-jerk response could be that Jesus seems to be acting a bit cruel here. But there’s more to it, as we’ll see in just a second.

His disciples, however, are getting increasingly more concerned. They’re in Gentile land, after all, and the risk of Gentile contamination grows exponentially every minute that this unclean heathen woman cries out and attracts attention. So they appeal to him that he “send her away, for she is crying out after us” (15:23), presumably asking him to grant her request so she would leave them alone! Now this is where the story gets really interesting. Jesus’ reply to his disciples goes like this: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). In other words, “I’m on mission, gentlemen, and I go where my Father tells me to go. And my mission is to call my people, Israel, to repent in light of the coming kingdom of God. Don’t ask me to go off mission and start ministering to the Gentiles. That’s not why I’m here.”

Now, we have to understand that this statement is fully in line with the gospel plan of God. When Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well, he specifically said to her, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). That was God’s plan, outlined throughout the Old Testament, that God would bless all families of the earth through the chosen offspring of Abraham. Salvation flows to the Gentiles through the Jews, and so of course his priority during his earthly ministry was to call the Jewish nation to repent and accept their Messiah.

This plays out even more in the interchange that happens next between Jesus and this Canaanite woman. In desperation, she approaches him and postures herself humbly at his feet and begs him for help (15:25), to which Jesus replies with the most startling statement: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (15:26). Now, Jesus was’t insulting her here as much as making a household analogy. The word “dog” here refers not to the common street dog that roamed the towns and villages at that time, but rather to a small domesticated dog that a family might have as a pet. These dogs would often pick up the scraps and the leftovers that fell off the table. But it would be unthinkable to take bread out of the mouths of the children in the house in order to feed the family pets. That would be misplaced priorities. No sane person does that—sacrifices their own children for the sake of the family dog. It’s unthinkable. But in a way, that’s the initial posture this woman has taken. She, a Canaanite woman, is calling Jesus “Lord, Son of David,” approaching him as the Jewish Messiah and asking for blessing. Now, part of the point of the story is how Jesus is engendering real faith in this woman, but on the surface is first appears that she’s approaching Jesus more like a Jew than like a Gentile, and Jesus’ response is to say, “You have no right or privilege. You aren’t a child at the table. You’re the puppy under the table. I’m here to feed my children, not the family dogs.”

But this woman, in one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the Bible, carries the analogy even further. She’s obviously not offended by Jesus’ analogy. She understands what he’s saying. He’s saying she—the Gentile—is the dog under the table. The Jews are the children at the table. And it’s not right to take what belongs to the children—what the children need—and give it to the dog under the table. She gets the analogy. And what’s more, she agrees! She says, “Yes, Lord.” She’s not refuting the facts. She’s not challenging the scenario. She knows the blessings of Messiah don’t belong to her by right. Instead, this is what she says: “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In other words, I’m not asking you to bless me like I’m an Israelite. I’m not appealing to you on the basis of privilege or position or right. I’m appealing to your mercy as I humbly posture myself under your priorities and your purposes. I’m just asking for a crumb to fall from the table. I understand your redemptive priorities, and I’m only asking that you let a crumb fall from the table.

The rest of the story goes on to recount Jesus’ amazement at this woman’s faith and how he grants her request. It’s one of only two times in Matthew that Jesus remarks on someone’s faith in a positive way, and in both cases, it’s involving a Gentile. The point of the story: it’s not your ethnicity that defiles you, but your heart. The person most likely to embody the epitome of defilement—a Canaanite woman—turns out to exhibit a kind of faith not seen throughout Israel. And the people you’d think, based on their immense privilege and position, would exhibit great faith, turn out to exhibit the fruit of a defiled heart.

Now, I recount that story for this reason: it aptly illustrates the status of Gentiles before the birth of the church. This woman’s plight is perfectly in line with Paul’s description of the Gentiles in Ephesians 2—separated from Christ, alienated from citizenship in Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world. The Israelites, by contrast, had immense spiritual and material privilege. He puts it this way in Romans 9:4–5…”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.” You see what a tremendous advantage it was to be a Jew and what a tremendous disadvantage is was to be a Gentile (cf. Rom. 3:1–2)? Before the birth of the church, the Jews sat at the table eating the “meal” of blessings prepared by their Father while the Gentiles sat beneath the table picking up the scraps that happened to fall on the floor. There was no privilege or right of access for the Gentile. There was no promise to claim.

But with the church, everything changed. And the only way I can illustrate it is to use the same story above but change one of the parameters. In the church, both Jew and Gentile sit at the same table eating the same meal. God in his grace has taken what used to be the dog under the table, and he has adopted him and by means of the gospel he has given him a seat at the table as a full member of the house, equal with the Jew, a co-heir of blessings and partakers in the same promise as their Jewish siblings. They’re not eating table scraps off the floor anymore. They’re eating a full up meal because they’re now just as much God’s children as the Jews are. That’s what’s changed. And it’s monumental. And no one ever saw it coming or ever dreamed it would have happened that way until it did. It’s the mystery of Christ hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to the saints. It’s Gentiles as co-heirs, co-body members, and co-partakers in the promise (Eph. 3:6). It is the fact that Christ dwells not just in the Jew but in the Gentile, and that the Gentile has a hope of glory the same as the Jew (Col. 1:27).

A New Perspective

I want this reality to hit you when you look at the church. I want it to shake up the old familiarity we all have for the church on every corner, and especially for your own church, and appreciate just how special the church is.

I don’t know the statistic (I’d like to find out, though), but I’d venture to guess that the church in the United States is comprised of 90–95% Gentiles. Think about that. That’s millions of believers who before Acts 2 would have been sitting under the table hoping for some scraps, but because Christ has taken down the “wall of partition” (Eph. 2:14–16) are now through the gospel sitting at the table enjoying the meal that once belonged only to a privileged few.

What kind of people ought we to be in light of what we have in Christ as members of the church? How might this affect us and give us a kind of perspective on the nature of the church that’s missing in contemporary evangelicalism? How might we think of and treat each other differently knowing that God has done for us something wholly undeserved? What kind of love and unity might grow out of a collective sense of humble awe and wonder at the mystery of God revealed in the church of Jesus Christ?