Pondering the Puzzle

“I have to confess, I don’t really get it. If you believe in Jesus, you believe he is the King. The Lord. The Boss. Your Boss. There is no other option. It’s an integral part of his identity. The fact that some people have lost sight of that fact is evidence, to me, of how far we have come from a really Biblical idea of who Jesus is. We have forgotten that there is no such thing as a Jesus who is not our King, a Jesus we don’t have to obey.”

-Boaz Michael
President and Founder of
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

I’ve mentioned most of this recently, but this is what’s available in my mind and in my blog for today’s “morning meditation.”

I keep trying to turn my rather unusual conceptualization of my Christian faith over and over in my mind, as if examining a rare piece of pottery crafted in ancient times. I’m pondering the runes and arcane markings on this archaeological object trying to tease one more clue to its nature and origin out of it; trying to discover one more secret. No, I’m not a latter-day Indiana Jones, but I am curious.

I’m curious about things I really don’t have the educational background to explore. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to explore them, but it’s like wanting to explore the deepest parts of an ocean but not knowing how to swim. The best I can do is rely on people who are expert oceanographers (who know so much more than just how to swim), their books, their findings, and the occasional special on PBS, to provide glimpses of what I want to know.

I’ll never be able to do the exploring first hand, anymore than I’ll ever be able to read and understand the runes and markings of the “faith object” I’m holding in my hands. I have to depend on someone else’s translation and hope they aren’t selling me a bill of goods, so to speak.

Now that I’ve tossed out sufficient qualifiers, here’s a few of the things I’m curious about. As I said, I may have mentioned them before.

Is the New Testament as “authoritative” as the Old Testament? That is, can we rely on the New Testament writings, including the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Apocalyptic writings to have the same authority of law as do the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings in the Tanakh?

That’s a tough one, but here’s my opinion, for what it’s worth (and not being a theologian, I guess it’s not worth all that much).

I would say that since the Gospels relate the direct teachings of the Jewish Messiah, then they would have an impact equal to and perhaps greater than the Torah. No, they don’t particularly override Torah (although traditional Christianity will disagree with me here) but they represent the correct presentation and interpretation of God’s intent and will for the Jewish people and ultimately, for the world. If a Christian wants to take something as “law” in the New Testament, it should be teachings of the Messiah in the Gospels.

But what about the Epistles? Is literally every word of every letter Paul, Peter, and James wrote to be considered undying and unchangeable law, applicable in exactly the same manner now as they were in the lives of the different churches they were addressed to in the first century diaspora?

Another tough one. Shooting from the hip, I’d tend to say, “no.” This is where a degree in New Testament scholarship would be handy because I suspect that digging into the different layers of these letters and asking questions like, which ones are considered authentic, who actually wrote them, to whom, under what conditions, and so forth, would yield fascinating results.

What if, for instance, the majority of the material in these letters are meant not to establish new laws and traditions for the church, but to interpret and apply pre-existing Bible law to people and situations for which the law of God was not originally intended? After all, Paul only had a Jewish template by which he could comprehend service to his Creator as a Jew. How does all that work when you’re trying to build a practical worship community for a bunch of non-Jews that is centered around the Jewish Messiah?

No wonder Paul’s letters are so difficult to understand, even today, and why there is so much debate around them among New Testament scholars.

And the Apocalyptic writings? What about John’s Revelation or for that matter, portions of the Gospel of John? Mystic visions are a vast mystery that I’m not even sure how to classify. It’s not a direct teaching of the Master and it isn’t a commentary by the Apostle to the Gentiles. It’s a look behind the veil between Heaven and Earth but I’m uncertain what to make of it all.

What else do I ponder?

When the Messiah returns, what will he teach? I’ll narrow this down a bit. There’s some debate about what sort of “Judaism” Jesus will practice and promote upon his return and as he establishes his reign in Jerusalem. Most Christians probably don’t consider that he’ll practice a Judaism at all but rather a perfect form of Christianity. At best, Gentile believers would probably accept that he’d reset the Jewish calendar back to what was being practiced during his first incarnation among humanity, that is, what many folks out there would call “Biblical Judaism.”

This is opposed to what we refer to as “Rabbinic Judaism” which is generally frowned upon my most Christians as being full of man-made rules and exists as the modern inheritors of the “leaven of the Pharisees,” which is not a complement.

But wait a minute.

A careful examination of the teachings of Jesus and his interactions with the Jewish authorities and common people of his day seems to reveal that, for the most part, he was “OK” with first century normative Judaism, including all of its Halacha and traditions. While the church tends to view first century Jewish tradition as wholly inconsistent with the Bible and a harsh punishment the corrupt Jewish religious authorities set upon the shoulders of the ordinary Jewish population, it was neither invented by those authorities, nor considered bizarre or unusual by Jews.

The topic of rabbinic authority, opinions, and rulings in the time of Jesus and before is enormously complicated and beyond my meager skills to investigate, but I highly recommend Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s book Hillel: If Not Now, When? which provides an insight into Hillel, a great Jewish teacher and leader who lived a generation before Jesus.

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that Jesus was perfectly fine with normative Judaism of the late second temple period, which would have differed from the Judaism of previous eras. What if…just what if when Jesus returns, he’ll be OK with normative Judaism as it exists on that day?

I have no way to back any of this up, but the assumption in Christianity and in some parts of Messianic Judaism is that Jesus will make radical changes to Jewish practice, probably tossing out most or all of what has been established in the past 2,000 years in favor of a more Bible-based model. All of the rulings, opinions, discussions and arguments of the sages would have been in vain. The scholarly teachings of the Rambam and Rashi would be dust. The Baal Shem Tov, the Chassidim, and the modern Chabad would be swept out of existence. Something more acceptable to the members of your local church would be installed in their place.

But is that necessarily true? If indeed, Jesus returns as the Jewish King, establishes his rule in Jerusalem, raises Israel as the head of all the nations of the earth, is it not also conceivable that his practice as a religious Jew might be accepting of at least some, if not most of Rabbinic Judaism?

Something to consider.

Last point. Re-read my quote of Boaz Michael from above before continuing.

One of the criticisms of Messianic Judaism is that it tends to focus more on the Torah and on Judaism than anything Messianic. That is, Jesus seems to take a backseat to Moses. Judaism is more important than Messianic.

Ironically, there are many non-Jewish practitioners in Messianic Judaism who are guilty of this, people who all but turn their back on Jesus but who will focus with great intent on how to tie their tzitzit and the correct pronunciation of their Hebrew prayers.

But what about the Messiah? Where does he fit in? Why have his teachings been subordinated to the Torah of Moses? Isn’t the Jewish King even greater than Moshe?

I think this has been a real problem in Messianic Judaism traditionally and it’s about time to start correcting it. I don’t doubt it will cause a great shake up in many congregations and reintegrating the Jewish Messiah as the center of Messianic Judaism will be quite a chore.

I have no idea how to make it work.

But figuring all this stuff out isn’t the point of today’s “meditation.” The point is just to open the box all this stuff has been stored in for so long, brush off the dust, and give them some air.

Fair wiser heads than mine are going to have to find a way to answer these questions. All I know how to do is ask them.

“If both Judaism and Christianity are correct in their definitions of redemption, then Jesus must do both what Judaism is expecting the Messiah to do, and what Christians expect him to do. This means that Jesus will do more than come back and save those who believe in him from sin and death. He will also re-gather his people Israel from exile and restore them to their land in a state of blessing and peace (Isaiah 35, 48:12-22, 52:1-12; Jeremiah 31).”

-Boaz Michael

5 thoughts on “Pondering the Puzzle”

  1. re: What if, for instance, the majority of the material in these letters are meant not to establish new laws and traditions for the church, but to interpret and apply pre-existing Bible law to people and situations for which the law of God was not originally intended?

    We Christians accept the New Testament or New Covenant as the authoritative Word of God. We understand that God used John the Baptist, the last Old Testament prophet to point the way to the Lamb of God, Jesus. Jesus taught the twelve and spoke to the house of Israel which ultimately rejected Him and cause him to be crucified. In giving up of his life he became the Passover Lamb of God whose shed blood was sufficient to save Jews and Gentiles alike. Originally Peter thought the gospel was only for the Jews but God revealed to him in the vision to Cornelius that it was for the Gentiles also. Paul a Rabbi dedicated to the destruction of Christianity was turned around by Jesus on the road to Damascus. By Paul’s own testimony we find that he was given direct Revelation and the gospel he preached was not his own but what he received from Jesus Christ. Peter, Paul, James and John all spoke in harmony the same gospel. John’s final work was not his own but rather the Revelation of Jesus Christ which is very much the book-end to Genesis. Through all these New Testament there is an overwhelming reliance on the Law and the Prophets so that all scripture is presented by the same Spirit in harmony.

  2. Greetings, youngearth.

    Thank you for your comment. Obviously I’m straying outside of accepted traditional Christian doctrine with my ponderings (and as I said in the body of my blog post, I’m asking questions but not necessarily posing answers). Of course, if you’ve read a few of my other missives, you’ve already seen that I’m not a strictly traditional Christian.

    I think the question of whether the New Testament “overwrites” the Old Testament or whether the New is commentary on the Old is justified. Paul was in kind of a fix, even with divine revelation on his side, trying to apply Jewish religious understanding and concepts to a group (the world of non-Jews) for whom the Torah was never designed. How could he explain the nature and character of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to people who had been worshiping half a dozen different “gods” of stone and wood just last week?

    Granted, the hand of God had to be in all of this, otherwise the efforts of a tiny handful of Jewish messengers wouldn’t have made such an enormous impact on the world, even thousands of years later. And yet, we have a tendency to look at the letters of Paul, Peter, and James in one and only one particular way. How do we know the way we comprehend them now was the way the were intended to be read by their writers?

    It’s always good to shake up the apple tree every now and then, just to see what falls out. I like questioning assumptions. It keeps the brain and I believe the spirit alive in each of us.

  3. “But what about the Epistles? Is literally every word of every letter Paul, Peter, and James wrote to be considered undying and unchangeable law, applicable in exactly the same manner now as they were in the lives of the different churches they were addressed to in the first century diaspora?”

    A couple of verses in 1st Corinthians 7 have me leaning toward the idea that the post Gospels/Acts writings are to be taken as a form of messianic Talmud. While speaking on marriage Paul expresses his own opinion on action to be taken in regards to the marriage between an unbeliever and a believer, a verse after expressing the Lord’s charge regarding divorce.

    That being said, each of the letters seem to focus on the issues affecting the individual communities at the specific time, though some topics seemed to be more universal throughout the communities and time, ie. sexuality, relation of Jew and Greek in regards to status in the kingdom, and false teachings.

    I’m sure I’m not alone in these thoughts. Thanks for continuing to shake the ol’ tree James 🙂

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