Jesus' disciples understood his death and resurrection to herald a New Covenant between God and humankind.
But at the outset, the original apostles were still so attached to their Jewish roots that they did little more than attempt to convince fellow Israelites that their leaders had only made a grave mistake in delivering up Jesus for execution.
They protested to little avail, however; as a nation, Israel successfully resisted the missionary efforts of the infant church.
It was left to Paul of Tarsus, a Jew living outside Israel, to grasp the radical nature of this new faith and deliver it to the world. Some critics contend that Paul "invented" Christianity and that Jesus himself would not recognize the apostle's confection. But Paul's letters demonstrate that this highly educated Pharisee grasped the momentous implications of Jesus' life, death and resurrection and possessed the power to persuade others, including the original apostles.
Paul grasped that Jesus' prophesy of a New Covenant already came into existence through his suffering for sin and his conquest of death.
This New Covenant was available to everyone who has faith in it. The moral value of the law delivered by Moses remained, but keeping the law alone was insufficient for salvation.
In truth, the law had become a diversion and an idol, so revered by the chosen people that it obscured the role of God himself. Of course, faithfulness to God was required in the New Covenant, but fidelity consisted of more than going through the motions of abiding the law. Rather, faithfulness was humankind's loving response to a faithful God -- a response impossible without the aid of God's grace.
God's plan had been altered, Paul insisted. Grace was no longer delivered through the law but through Jesus, who superseded the law. The God of Israel was revealed as the God of all, his grace and salvation available to everyone who believes and embraces the New Covenant.
Our very humanity makes us eligible for faith and grace. Because of Jesus, all people are chosen people.
Paul wrote to the Colossians: "In this new man of God's design, there is no distinction between Greek and Hebrew, Jew or Gentile, foreigner or savage, slave or free man. Christ is all that matters, for Christ lives in them all."
No longer was the letter of the law to be used as a weapon against the poor, the ignorant, the despised and sinners, for these were the very persons Jesus had come to save.
Paul was free to carry forgiveness and hope to those who had never heard of the Mosaic law, but had lived only by secular law and their consciences.
Not surprisingly, the world welcomed the ancient faith now unburdened of its rigid restrictions.
Here was the radically democratic promise that the God of the Jews would make straight the crooked ways for everyone -- enriching the poor, strengthening the weak, forgiving the sinner, preferring the simple to the wise and uplifting the lowly.
Here now was the universal promise to every person -- whatever his or her station in life -- of eternal joy!
(David Yount is the author of 14 books, including "Be Strong and Courageous: Letters to My Children About Being Christian." He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and firstname.lastname@example.org.)