To appreciate this historically, one must look at Christianity framed and understood within its Jewish context (something sadly forgotten even among many Orthodox). The New Testament shows that Jesus’ thought on His ministry was to restore and rebirth Israel, inaugurating the Kingdom of God “on earth as in heaven” (clearly seen in the selection of Twelve Apostles connecting to the Twelve Tribes of Israel). The Hebrew Scriptures do point to God’s plan to rescue the entire world from sin and death though. In the choosing of Abraham we see the beginnings (and foundation) of Israel, then the story runs through his descendants, Isaac, Jacob (renamed Israel by God) and Joseph (i.e. Book of Genesis). Even here the Apostolic reading is that being “God’s chosen” is not simply a matter “of the flesh” (Isaac is chosen over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau, and Joseph over his eleven brothers). With Moses, the Exodus and issuing of the Covenant there is the condition of obedience and faithfulness to God in the Torah. This would hold true in the Kings, David and Solomon (particularly in the building of the Temple) and their descendants (e.g. Ps. 89). However, the same Scriptures also show the people who are to be the solution become part of the problem, clearly seen in the Prophets crying out about God’s judgment about the rebellious of Israel (ex. John the Baptist in Luke 3: 7 – 9). Yet it is through Israel, those who remained faithful to their one and only God, that the salvation of all would indeed take place.
Jesus saw Himself as fulfilling the destiny of Israel to fulfill the promise to Abraham wherein all nations would come to know the one true Creator and God. The Apostles and their Communities saw Him as Israel’s Messiah, confirmed but also “reframed” beyond their expectations in His death and (especially His) bodily resurrection. Faithfulness to the one true God and being part of His people then required faithfulness to and belief in His Messiah manifest in the Person of Jesus. In Christ’s death and resurrection the Messianic Age, the Age of the Spirit and the Day of the Lord (to be completed at the Parousia -aka “Second Coming”), is inaugurated and is implemented in and by the Church (the “Israel of God”, Galatians 6: 16).
We must always keep in mind that Christ and all the Apostles (even and especially St Paul) did not think they were starting a new religion, but that in Jesus and by the Spirit, the Church was the renewed continuation and rebirth of Israel. Regardless of first century Roman authorities who saw Christianity as “one of the many” sects of Judaism, the Apostles and their Communities did not. The Church, rather than being a “subset” of Israel, understood itself to be the genuine Israel, the remnant that always remained faithful to the LORD throughout its history. That alone caused reaction by the “non-Christian Jews,” clearly seen in the persecutions referred to in the Book of Acts (exemplified by “Saul of Tarsus”). The inter-ethnic and religious turmoil spread throughout the Roman Empire and would causing actual riots in Rome itself so as to result in the expulsion of all Jews by the Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) from there (48-49 AD). The Roman authorities could not understand the intense clashes amongst the Jews over (according to the Roman historian, Suetonius) some person named “Chrestus” (Latin transliteration of the Greek word “Christos”-Christ). The conflict became even more explosive when Gentiles are incorporated (“grafted onto” Romans 11:13 – 24) into this renewed Israel without the necessity of fulfilling the requirements of the Torah, especially circumcision (replaced now by baptism Colossians 2: 11, 12). Israel was always the “remnant” that remained faithful to God (e.g. Rom. 9: 25 – 29). Through Christ all people who put their faith in Him are now descendants of Abraham (e.g. Gal. 3: 1- 29). The Church does not “replace” Israel, but is its continuation and fulfillment. Jesus “embodies” Israel. There is no other “covenant” if Christ organically embodies all humanity joined to the one true God (e.g. Gal 5: 4 – 6).
In the Jewish tradition it was understood that only the Messiah could establish Israel and rebuild the Temple (although there were and still are some, though few, Hassidic groups who refuse to “acknowledge” Israel based on this view). For the Christian, Christ organically inaugurated the Covenant bond between God and humanity always intended in His own Person (the Torah-Word/Logos en-humanized John1: 14), remaining faithful to His Father though His (Jesus’) death, resurrection and ascension. Through Him the Holy Spirit is released into the world renewing Israel. As the true King and Ruler at God’s right hand who now sends the Spirit by whose power He rebirths Israel as the Church, the faithful Community, building a Temple where God’s presence is seen to fully reside on earth. Therefore all the promises to Israel now carry on in the Church. It is not the rebuilding of the Temple, but the gathering of all those faithful to God and His Messiah that manifest the fullness of God dwelling upon the earth. It is no longer a strip of land called “Palestine,” but the whole world that is God’s sacred domain.
The above is the traditional view since the time of the Apostles. Part of the problem comes from the popular opinion about the State of Israel as the fulfillment of Scripture within Christianity. This view often comes from American Christians of the Protestant vein. Those concerned with these views regarding the “end times” forget this was developed in the first half of the 19th century. Even Protestants from other parts of the world disagree with their counterparts in the USA on these issues of the “rapture,” etc). Some of this is fueled by the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, but much is also laced with the (justified) guilt over the general abuse of Jews in history. This was brought to a head in light of ignoring and even fostering what happened in the Holocaust of World War II (half of the 12 million victims being Jews). Sadly, many so called Christians have done evil against Jews through history, to the extent of losing all appreciation and connection with Christianity’s Jewish base (even denying that Jesus and the early Christians were Jewish at all). No one calling themselves Christian who understands the love God has for all in His image, would promote racial hatred and bigotry.
In light of the aforementioned abuse of Jewish people, some may feel that having the view that the Church is Israel fulfilled is a thinly veiled anti Semitism. From this standpoint it is a sensitive issue and the question (as Biblical scholar, N.T Wright puts it) always has to be addressed, “Are you prejudiced because you criticize, or do you criticize because you are prejudiced?” Acknowledging the Truth of the Gospel and claiming participation in the Kingdom does not automatically promote hate anymore than it meant for Jesus Himself who often strongly disagreed with His fellow Jews. While all opinions are not of equal value, (contradictory “views” cannot all be “true”) Christianity sees all people are equally loved and valued in the one humanity created by God and joined to Him in the one humanity of His incarnate Son. We can speak of the Scriptural view and might be able to see the difficulty of calling a nation that has a high rate of agnosticism the “fulfillment” of God’s work while still loving Jews and respecting them in their faith (especially as it is the frame and basis of Christianity). We can criticize Israeli government policies involving the abuse of other human beings (e.g. illegal Israeli settlements that shut water and electricity for several days at a time, etc) and reactivity that allows extremism without saying that all Jews are that way, etc. We can even be supportive in a general way of the State of Israel based on political realities, without having to resort to Scripture in a non-Apostolic fashion.
There is also the attempt to separate Jesus from St Paul (and now deny Paul’s own Jewishness) and claim he developed a religion never envisioned by Christ. However, nothing could be farther from the historical realities (recent research is becoming clearer on this point). Paul saw himself right in line with his Jewish tradition. If anything we could use a music illustration and say Christ was the “composer” of the “piece” (inaugurating the Kingdom and the Church) and Paul was like a “conductor” helping the Church as an orchestra “play out” what was “composed.” Paul did not “compose” an entirely different piece of “music.” Had he done so, the “Piece” (the Gospel and the Church), which was already known and the other “conductors” (the Apostles, eyewitnesses of Christ and leaders) and their orchestras (Eucharistic Communities-Churches) would have screamed “bloody murder” as if someone were to claim that the “Star Spangled Banner” was really Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (both written around the same time). Paul wrote at a time that many of these “eyewitnesses” were still alive and well. While Paul may have “stirred up more people than the other Apostles, they did not see him as preaching and implementing another Gospel (e.g. I Corinthians 1: 10 -17; 3: 4 – 23; 9: 3 – 13; Gal. 1: 15 – 20; 2: 1 – 14). He knew them and they knew him.
As Orthodox Christians, we submit ourselves to the witness and faith of Jesus and the Apostles with their communities, which we see as one. It is their mindset; their worldview, their exegesis of the Scriptures that we are in communion with (e.g. I John 1: 1 – 5) and work to implement in this present world. To do otherwise would indeed be creating another religion.