This article is adapted from a message preached by Pastor Wayne Hilsden, under the title: The Church – Ruth'less' or Ruth'full'? given at King of Kings Community in Jerusalem, on Sunday evening, May 23, 1999. Although the sermon was given to the local congregation, its message is applicable to the believing body worldwide.
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there. Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
When she heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah. Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them and they wept aloud and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has gone out against me!”
At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.
“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” But Ruth replied,
“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”
When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. Ruth 1:1-18 (NIV)
A group of soldiers was released from a prison camp at the end of World War II. They were finally heading home. They were about to board a boat when they were told that, because there was very little room on the boat, they could only bring one important piece of luggage. Two of the soldiers had been with each other throughout the war. They were like brothers, always watching out for one another.
One of the two friends was selected to go on this particular sailing but his friend would have to stay behind and wait for a later boat. What did the first soldier do? He grabbed his one duffel bag, and turned it upside down, spilling all his personal possessions onto the ground. Then he told his friend to step into the bag, carefully lifted the bag onto his back and carried his “most important piece of luggage” on board.
Now that’s friendship – that’s faithful love and commitment.
Here we are going to see a similar kind of relationship between two women – Ruth and Naomi. But this is more than just a story of two women. I believe the story of Ruth and Naomi can be seen as an allegory, a picture of the church and Israel – at least the way our relationship ought to be.
As I write, we are in the middle of Shavuot. This holiday occurs at the time of the beginning of the offering called the Firstfruits of the Harvest (Exo 23:16). Ruth’s betrothal to Boaz took place during this festive harvest season, when barley was being winnowed (Ruth 3:2; cf 1:22). Thus, during this holiday, the book of Ruth is read in the synagogues.
Let me remind you of the significant parts of the story. The events took place in the time of the Judges.
Ruth, a gentile woman from the land of Moab married a Jew. Her husband had come to Moab along with his parents, Elimelech and Naomi, in order to escape a famine that struck Judah. While living in Moab much tragedy struck that family. Not only did Elimelech, the family patriarch, die and leave his wife Naomi a widow, but Naomi’s only two sons also died in Moab. The only immediate relatives remaining to Naomi were her two daughter-in-laws, Orpah and Ruth.
The time came when things began to improve back in Judah. So Naomi decided to return to her home town of Bethlehem. While both daughters-in-law had the opportunity to go with Naomi and begin a new life in Israel among the Jewish people, only Ruth actually went.
Ruth’s difficult decision to leave her roots in Moab and completely join herself to Israel ended up being the best decision she ever made. Remember, God provided for Ruth and led her to marry Boaz, a prosperous Jewish farmer. She had never borne children before; but now she would not only have a son but, through this son, Ruth the Gentile would become the great-grandmother of King David. And, even more stunning, God would use Ruth to perpetuate the line of the Messiah, the son of David – Yeshua.
I said that we are going to look at this story as an analogy of the Church’s relationship with Israel. I don’t know if this was in the mind of the author of Ruth, and I don’t intend to build a theology based on this story alone. But sometimes using a story as an allegory is very helpful in understanding spiritual truth. This was a teaching method Yeshua often used. In any case, what I share with you is consistent with the teaching of the whole of Scripture concerning the Church and Israel.
So let’s look at the parallels in this story. I believe Ruth is a wonderful picture of what the Gentile part of the Church is supposed to be like. Though once “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12), we Gentile members of the church have been given in marriage to the Jewish Messiah, our “Boaz-like” Kinsman-Redeemer. And because of our relationship with him, we are “no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” (Eph 2:19) Boaz is a type of the greater Kinsman-Redeemer who would also come out of Bethlehem.
But let’s not forget Naomi’s other daughter-in-law, Orpah. Orpah was also a gentile who had married a Jew. Which meant that she too was related to Israel in some fashion. But, unlike her sister-in-law Ruth, Orpah decided to stay in Moab and identify with her Gentile culture and religion. Orpah, I believe, is a picture of the Gentile part of the Church that has been unable to understand and appreciate the inseparable bond between the Church and Israel. Instead of identifying herself with the Jews, the “Orpah church” turns her back on Israel and turns toward a religion that is more influenced by the world than by the revelation of God in the Hebrew Scriptures.
And then there’s Naomi. She is a picture of Israel. Like Naomi, the Jewish people have long been in a kind of Moabite exile. Until this century, the land of Israel was a desert place, a place of famine. Too often Jews have preferred the “leeks and garlic” of life in exile. Yet, like Naomi’s loss of her husband and only sons, the Jewish people have experienced untold tragedy and death in exile – even an unprecedented Holocaust.
Rather than go and comfort Naomi in Zion the “Orpah church” has left Naomi to mourn and fend for herself. The “Ruth church”, however, has a revelation of Israel. As Ruth said to Naomi, so the “Ruth Church” says to Israel:
“Entreat me not to leave you,
Or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.”
It’s interesting, that Orpah, who later went back to Moab, at first said that she intended to go forward with Naomi. In Ruth 1:10 it says: “And they [both Ruth and Orpah] said to her, “‘Surely we will return with you to your people.’” We see in verses 9 and 14 that Orpah even had tears at the thought of being separated from Naomi. But unfortunately, as Matthew Henry wrote concerning these verses: “Strong passions, without a settled judgment, commonly produce weak resolutions … Orpah’s kiss showed she had an affection for Naomi and was loathe to part from her; yet she did not love her well enough to leave her country for her sake.”
The Jewish roots of the Church
Let’s not forget that at first, the Church, like well-meaning Orpah, had a desire to stick with the Jews. In fact, at its very beginning, the Church was made up exclusively of Jews. The Jewish church was even viewed as a sect within Judaism, known (according to Acts 24:5) as the “the sect of the Nazarenes.” They were described as “enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:47). The Church was given birth in Jerusalem, a city with a history of prophets, priests, and kings, and the focus of Jewish spiritual life for over a millennium. Even after Yeshua ascended, His followers went continually to the Temple, praising God.
Paul, (Shaul) – the man many claim as being the one who provided a theological basis for the split between the church and the synagogue – never once left Judaism. (See Acts 28:17) Instead, he saw his faith in Yeshua as the completion of his Jewish faith.
Even when the church began to incorporate Gentile members all over the Roman world, many of these new Gentile believers were already “God-fearers” who attended the synagogue. For the most part, the worship of the early believers, whether in Jerusalem or in Rome, was patterned after the synagogue. For many decades after the birth of the Church at Pentecost, born-again Gentiles worshipped and worked alongside born-again Jews. Gentile believers kept the Jewish feasts and had no intention of ever cutting themselves off from their roots. Some look at the Catholic Church as being a far cry from what the church was in its early days, when it was still bonded to Judaism. But it is interesting that Pope Pius XI once made the observation that “spiritually, we are all Semites.”
As insightful as this statement is, the fact remains, the church today is far away from home, far away from its Hebraic roots. As a result, the church, in its boastful independence, is often starving for spiritual nourishment. Like a flower cut at the stem, it is rootless and withering.
Paul wrote to Gentile Roman believers who were still attached to their Jewish roots and said, “and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root” (11:17). Is this still the case today? How many churches have any conception that there is any nourishment to be received from their spiritual roots? Most Christians today are sadly lacking in knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. Even in Seminaries and Bible Colleges, there are usually far fewer courses on the Old Testament than the New. And when it comes to Biblical languages, more often than not, Greek is a required course, and Hebrew is an elective. I studied Greek in seminary, even taught it in a large Bible College, many years before I ever learned any Hebrew.
Even Martin Luther once said, “Hebrews drink from the spring, the Greeks from the stream that flows from it, and the Latins from a downstream pool.” Yet most of the Gentile Church has been like Orpah who in the end preferred to abandon Naomi and go her own way.
The tragic history of the “Orpah church”
To demonstrate this disturbing reality, let’s look at a quick summary of Jewish-Christian history. For some, this will be just a review, but it’s worth recounting some of the tragic history of the “Orpah church.”
Within a generation of the crucifixion of Jesus, the Roman army ransacked the city of Jerusalem, totally destroyed the Temple and eventually much of the indigenous Jewish culture of Israel. Like Naomi in Moab, the Jews found themselves in foreign lands.
Within a few hundred years the Church for, the most part, came to disregard the continuing significance of Jewish people. A number of Christian theologians arose who saw the involvement of the Jews in cooperation with the Romans in the crucifixion of Jesus and the subsequent destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem as a sign that God was finished with Israel. God had rejected Israel once and for all. God would now form a new “chosen people” – the Church.
Some even taught that it was the Jews who were solely responsible for the death of Christ, and were therefore guilty of the most terrible of all crimes; “deicide,” the murder of God. In fact, many Christians came to believe that one way of showing their loyalty to Jesus was to express their hatred toward the Lord’s “murderers.”
Anti-Semitism was justified in the name of theology. Chrysostom, a Christian theologian who lived in the 4th century, said this about the Jews in one of his sermons: “[They are] … murderers, destroyers, men possessed by the Devil … They know only one thing, to satisfy their gullets, get drunk, to kill and maim one another … “ To think that John Chrysostom is considered one of the early Church Fathers and is even now called a saint.
Chrysostom, along with others, had a deep and lasting influence upon the attitudes of many Christians for hundreds of years. Six centuries later a hatred for the Jews by so-called Christians was revealed which was even more hideous. The Crusaders are often remembered for their chivalry, faith and zeal. But, in reality, many of them were cruel men who hated the Jews with a passion. As punishment for the Jews’ role in the murder of Christ, the Crusaders took revenge on the Jewish people living in the Holy Land. On one occasion, a group of Crusaders found a Jewish congregation gathered in a synagogue in Jerusalem. They burned down the building, resulting in the death of all the worshipers trapped inside.
But this is only one of the innumerable atrocities committed by the Crusaders against the Jews. In 1000AD, when the Crusaders first arrived in the Holy Land, there were 300,000 Jewish residents. By the time the Crusaders left the scene, less than 200 years later, only 1,000 Jewish families remained.
In my study of Church history, I have been shocked to discover that anti-Semitism was not confined merely to the Roman Church, which had become corrupt and mixed with paganism. There is a strain of anti-Semitism even evident in the writings of the Protestant Reformers – men who supposedly had cleansed the Roman Church of much of its corruption.
At first, Martin Luther was sympathetic to the Jews, believing that they would gladly receive his new-found gospel of justification by faith. But when they didn’t accept the message, he became deeply embittered against them. As a consequence, Luther became just as severe as the Roman Church in his contempt for the Jews. Martin Luther called for the expulsion of Jews from Germany and the destruction of their synagogues and books. On one occasion he wrote: “The Jews are brutes, their synagogues are pigsties; they ought to be burned … They live by evil and plunder; they are wicked beasts that ought to be driven out like mad dogs.”
It is not surprising that, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, they used the writings of theologians like Luther to justify their policies. The result was a Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were exterminated. Sadly, much of the church stood idly by, unwilling to lend a hand to the Jewish people, the chosen nation of God.
This is tragic history – the history of the Church in relation to the Jewish people. How could we have forgotten the words of Isaiah 41:8-14?
“But you, Israel, are My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the descendants of Abraham My friend. You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest regions, and said to you, “‘You are My servant, I have chosen you and have not cast you away: fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’ “Behold, all those who were incensed against you shall be ashamed and disgraced; they shall be as nothing, and those who strive with you shall perish. You shall seek them and not find them – those who contended with you. Those who war against you shall be as nothing, as a nonexistent thing. For I, the LORD your God, will hold your right hand, saying to you, “‘Fear not, I will help you.’ Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I will help you,” says the LORD and your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. Isaiah 41:8-14
There is an episode in Sir Walter Scott’s book ‘Ivanhoe’, in which a Templar (a knight of a religious order established in the early 12th century in Jerusalem for the protection of pilgrims and the Holy Sepulcher) tries to force a young Jewish girl to convert. But even in the face of death she would not be converted. She said to the Templar: “I envy not your religion, for it is ever on your lips but far from your heart.”
What this Jewish girl described was the “Orpah church.” Even today we, like Orpah, say that we want to love and support Naomi, but in the end, we prefer to go our own way. Although Paul taught us in Romans 11:11 that, “… salvation has come to the Gentiles – to make Israel envious.” More often than not Jews “envy not our religion – for it is ever on our lips but far from our heart.”
So the challenge I present to the Church is this: Will we be like Orpah and turn our backs on the Jewish people? Or will we be like Ruth and cleave to Naomi, bringing Israel support and encouragement as she is once again restored to her land and eventually to her God.
In a nutshell, will we be Ruth’less’ or Ruth’ful?’
In contrast to Orpah, let’s look at Ruth and discover how the Church could become more like Ruth in relation to the Jewish people.
Are we willing to love the Jews unconditionally?
And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each to her mother’s house … And she said, “Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave you, Or to turn back from following after you … “ Ruth 1:8,15-16
“Entreat me not,” in the margins of some Bibles reads it, “Be not against me.” It seems that Naomi was not open at first to the idea of Ruth coming back with her to Judah. But Ruth’s love for Naomi would not be stopped by rejection. She was determined to go anyway. She would keep loving even when Naomi was reluctant to accept her.
Three times Naomi insisted that Ruth return to Moab (1:11-12,15). Our love for the Jewish people must be like Ruth’s love for Naomi, not conditional love – a love that will last as long as the other party accepts us. Some have a Ruth kind of love for Israel – the type that loves the Jewish people even when, despite the desire for them to come to faith, they reject the message time and time again. Unfortunately Luther loved the Jews with a condition – “I’ll love you as long as you accept my gospel.” But Ruth was going to love Naomi no matter what – even if Naomi appeared to be rejecting her.
It’s interesting what Paul said in Acts 21:12-13.
Now when we heard these things, both we and those from that place pleaded with him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Paul was warned that he would be rejected by his fellow Jews and even arrested. But his love for God’s people Israel would not let him run away from the call to bring the good news to Jerusalem.
We need more of God’s love for Israel, an unconditional love. In Psalm 89:30-34, speaking of His covenant with the sons of David, the Lord promises,
“If his sons forsake my law and do not follow my statutes, if they violate my decrees and fail to keep my commands, I will punish their sin with the rod, their iniquity with flogging; but I will not take my love from him, nor will I ever betray my faithfulness. I will not violate my covenant or alter what my lips have uttered.”
True love is unconditional love. I heard the story of a man in Wales who sought for 42 years to win the affection of a certain lady before she finally said, “Yes.” The couple, both 74, recently wed. For more than 40 years, the persistent but rather shy man slipped a weekly love letter under his neighbor’s door. But she continually refused to speak and mend the quarrel that had parted them many years before. After writing 2,184 love letters without ever getting a spoken or written answer, the persistent old man finally summoned up enough courage to present himself in person. He knocked on the door of the reluctant lady and asked her to marry him. To his delight and surprise, she accepted.
True love keeps on loving, even when those we love spurn and reject us.
Romans 11:28 reveals the kind of love demanded of the Christian for the Jew. Paul says,
“As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs.”
Paul understood the difficulty that some Christians have in loving the Jewish people – “they are enemies on your account”. Historically, very few Jewish people have accepted the gospel message. Many times, they have been violently opposed to it (as is evident by the increase of anti-missionary activity today).
But the kind of love that God expects is agape love, a love that expects nothing in return. It is a love that keeps loving even when our message is rejected.
Are we willing to sacrifice?
We must be willing to stand with the Jews, even if it means making a sacrifice.
But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Are there still sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go – for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, if I should have a husband tonight and should also bear sons, would you wait for them till they were grown? Would you restrain yourselves from having husbands? No, my daughters; for it grieves me very much for your sakes that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me!” … For wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge … “ Ruth 1:11-13;16
In verses 9 and 10, Naomi asked that God would give each of her widowed daughters-in-law another husband. This is a key issue in the book of Ruth. Marriage meant security for a woman, and widows were especially needy. Naomi referred to the levirate custom in Israel in which a brother was responsible to marry his deceased brother’s wife in order to conceive a son and perpetuate his brother’s name and inheritance (Deut 25:5-10). Naomi pointed out that this would be impossible in their case since she had no more sons.
So Ruth knew that by going with Naomi she was giving up the opportunity to remarry someone in Moab. And there didn’t appear to be any possibility of marriage with anyone else in Naomi’s family.
Those of us who believe God has called us to love and serve Israel may also have to pay a price – for some (particularly women) even a similar price as Ruth – “singleness.” I read this week an interesting statistic: Single women outnumber single men 7 to 1 on the foreign mission field. Frankly, marriage prospects in Jerusalem are bleak for Christian women who intend to be holy and not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. Yet, if God has given you a Ruth call – a lifelong call to serve and live among God’s people Israel it may mean paying a price and never marrying.
Are we willing to stand alongside Israel in good times and bad?
Famines happen in Israel. Wars happen in Israel. In fact, according to the prophetic Scriptures, war is certain to break out at some point in Israel. How many of us will abandon the Jewish people in their greatest time of need? Back in 1991, during the Gulf war, our willingness to identify with the Jewish people was truly tested. People back in Canada were advising us to leave Israel. But identifying with the people God has called you to serve requires that you stand with them in the good times and the bad. So we didn’t leave. And believe me, this made a world of difference to our Jewish friends. This kind of identification gives authenticity to our faith in Yeshua and authenticity to our profession of love for the Jewish people.
Ruth said to Naomi in verses 16-17 “wherever you lodge I will lodge.” Are you kidding? – with Jerusalem real estate prices? Ruth said to Naomi, “wherever you go I’ll go.” How many of us, 50 years ago, would have risked going with the Jews into the gas chambers by hiding Jews from the Nazis? Will we really be ready to go with the Jewish people in their greatest time of need? If we’ve got the heart of Ruth we will.
So to those of you who are called to serve the nation of Israel, I ask: What will you do if war breaks out in a few years? What will you do if you find that it’s more expensive to live in this country than you thought? What will you do if other pressures make you want to flee this land? Now I’m not going to condemn anyone for leaving Israel, if God tells you to. But if you’ve got the call of Ruth you had better make sure God told you to.
I believe that those of us who have a Ruth calling and are committed to Israel are actually a small part of what Isaiah 14:1-2 prophesied:
“For the LORD will have mercy on Jacob, and will still choose Israel, and settle them in their own land. The strangers will be joined with them, and they will cling to the house of Jacob. Then people will take them and bring them to their place, and the house of Israel will possess them for servants and maids in the land of the LORD.”
How many of us are ready to serve sacrificially by holding up and supporting the Jewish people in this humble way?
Blessing for the “Ruth Church”
But let me tell you something: If you have the calling of Ruth, your decision to love and support the people of Israel will mean incredible blessing. Ruth gave up much, but she received much more in return. After many years of barrenness she was given a son. God saw Ruth’s humble, servant heart and he rewarded her.
God will reward you too. It’s interesting to read the end of the story in Ruth:
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and when he went in to her, the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a close relative; and may his name be famous in Israel! “And may he be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her bosom, and became a nurse to him. Also the neighbor women gave him a name, saying, “There is a son born to Naomi.” And they called his name Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David. Ruth 4:13-17
Here we see the beautiful picture of Naomi embracing her grandchild, Obed. Remember, from this very seed of Obed, the Messiah would come and be born in this same town of Bethlehem. I believe we have a picture of the time that will one day arrive, when Naomi will embrace the Messiah born in Bethlehem. I believe the Jewish people will one day see Yeshua for who he really is.
The Scriptures tell us that the Jewish people will eventually come to the place where they receive the Messiah and His forgiveness. In Romans 11:25-27 we read;
“And all Israel will be saved … he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is My covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
Whether we are living in Israel or somewhere else on the globe, may our words and our actions show that we are of “Ruth” and not of “Orpah” in our relationship to Israel. May we never have cause to hear “I envy not your religion, for it is ever on your lips but far from your heart.”
May you and I be Ruth to Naomi and help make it possible for Israel to embrace her Savior.
Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version.
Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.
Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.