Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
–Acts 4:13-20 (ESV)
Solemnly charged not to speak in Yeshua’s (Jesus’s) name, the apostles replied, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
The Sanhedrin could argue that they were God’s ordained authority on earth, therefore disobedience to them was disobedience to God. It was a difficult contradiction, and one faced by others in Jewish history. Decisions the legislators adopted by majority consensus were also adopted as the ruling in heaven. (see b.Bava Meitza 59a-b)
What does one do when God-ordained institutional authority rules in contradiction with the will of God? The Master had already prepared his disciples for just such a circumstance. He had foreseen the way things would go and had assured His disciples that they would possess “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” and the right to make legal determinations of binding and loosing. (Matthew 16:19) As apostles of Yeshua, the twelve disciples represented the authority of the throne of David. That important legal power gave Simon Peter and the Twelve the right to overrule the Sanhedrin if necessary.
It’s all fine and well for Jesus to assure “His disciples that they would possess ‘the keys to the kingdom of heaven’ and the right to make legal determinations of binding and loosing,” but what about us? The apostles represented a direct link to the Messiah, since they had been taught by him and the giving of the Holy Spirit to them, in a very public visible and physical demonstration, was only days or weeks old. While the Sanhedrin could attempt to refute and even defy their “Messianic authority,” a good many witnesses in Jerusalem were more than convinced, and correctly so. Not only that, but there could have been no doubt in the minds of Peter, John, and the rest of the apostles, that they were in the right. Thus they had not only the authority, but the confidence and certainty of mind to be able to stand up in defiance of an order of Israel’s authentic and authoritative legal court system.
But how does D. Thomas Lancaster’s commentary on the legal authority of the apostles to defy the legal authority of the Sanhedrin affect us? That is, who holds “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” today?
You might say, “the church,” but which one? How many denominations of the Christian church currently exist?
According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there are approximately 41,000 Christian denominations and organizations in the world. This statistic takes into consideration cultural distinctions of denominations in different countries, so there is overlapping of many denominations.
-quoted from “Christianity Today – General Statistics and Facts of Christianity”
That’s a lot of denominations, and they don’t take into account a lot of the more fringy or cult-like groups who also claim some sort of authority to interpret scripture over their flocks in a legal manner.
And then there’s the Internet. As we’ve seen in a seemingly endless stream of religious blogs and their associated comments, there is a plethora of groups and individuals who claim to collectively or personally possess “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” and the right to defy the more established Christian authorities.
I suppose we could split the difference 41,000 (legitimate) ways within the body of Christianity and say that each church possesses a set of keys as applied to their own communities, and that their authority, as it were, is limited to the confines of said-communities, but that’s not really satisfactory. There are not 41,000 Gods and there are not 41,000 Christs, and there are not 41,000 Holy Spirits. God is One. While I believe, to a certain degree, that how the Bible principles are applied may vary and even evolve over the centuries in order to serve the needs of each generation, there is still an objective God; a God unto Himself, the One God with One Mind, and One Spirit, who cannot be subdivided in any manner, even though we may want and even need Him to do so for the sake of our own priorities.
That’s the problem we are having today. Look at the struggles the “early church” had in Jerusalem. They never became a major power in the Jewish hierarchy. They remained a small Jewish sect operating within the larger collection of valid Judaisms of the late Second Temple period and to some small degree, beyond the destruction of the Temple (but not very much farther). If there was one authentic Messianic (Christian) Jewish authority with the living apostles of Christ among the many Judaisms, when the Jews either surrendered Christianity to the nations or were “kicked out” of the assembly of the Messiah by the Gentiles, what happened to that authentic authority? Was it divided and subdivided, and subdivided again, endlessly across history, like a single-celled organism replicating, evolving, developing to form some vast living mass that is associated but not particularly unified? Is that authority shared among 41,000 living “cells” in what is (loosely) collective Christianity today?
Who currently has the right to make legal decisions that are binding both on earth and in Heaven and to defy all of the others who claim authority over the “Christian church?”
Oh, it gets worse.
It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, (Lit., ‘all the arguments in the world’) but they did not accept them. Said he to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm, four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’ Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’ (Deut. 30:12) What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline. (Ex. 23:2 though the story is told in a legendary form, this is a remarkable assertion of the independence of human reasoning)
R. Nathan met Elijah (It was believed that Elijah, who had never died, often appeared to the Rabbis) and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’
The Torah Club commentary, from which I quoted above, refers to this Talmudic story, and it is believed in observant Judaism, that the right of the Rabbis to interpret and apply halakhah in an authoritative manner derives from this passage as attached to Deuteronomy 30:12 (Stone Edition Chumash):
It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, “Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?”
My Christian reading audience is probably asking why any of this matters, since the Jews do not have authority to interpret scriptures for Christians, and especially not to establish halakhah for us. That’s a good question and you’re right. We don’t expect any of the Talmudic rulings to have any sort of impact, let alone authority, over any of the 41,000 Christian denominations (and their variants, spin-offs, or edge case adaptations) today.
But what about Jews who profess Jesus Christ as the Jewish Messiah King, not as members of a Christian church, but as disciples of Yeshuah HaMashiach (Jesus the Christ) within a wholly Jewish ethnic, cultural, and halakhic religious and lifestyle context? What about Messianic Judaism?
When G-d intrusted Israel with the Torah, He commanded them to appoint leaders to interpret the Torah and to judge whether or not the people had broken the Torah. Inherent in this process is the development of case law, history, tradition of the Jewish people which establishes the precedence that fleshes out the full meaning and implications of each of the commandments. This body of tradition was created by the Jewish people at the commandment of G-d…The Torah invests the divine authority in the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people (this is in the Deuteronomy ch. 17), where their rulings are called…”a word of Torah”. Any Israelite presumptuous enough to reject the rulings of the judges of Israel was cut off from his people, the same punishment as for someone who rejected the written Torah. How much more presumptuous is it for a gentile to cast off entire body of Jewish tradition and claim the right to act as the judge and definer of the Torah?
President and Founder of First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Speaking at the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) July 2012 conference in Baltimore, Maryland
as quoted by Gene Shlomovich on his blog
We see that in some corners of Messianic Judaism (as I define it), there is a serious devotion to the authority of the Jewish people to define themselves as Jews and to determine halakhah for themselves based on the authority of the sages. This rather flies in the face of we non-Jewish Christians but is a particular “thorn in the side” of some of those non-Jews who have either directly (by attending authentic Messianic Jewish congregations) or tangentially (through an affiliation with some form of the Hebrew Roots movement) attached themselves to a (more or less) “Jewish” viewpoint on the New Testament scriptures, Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and God as the God of Israel.
I’ll tell you right now that I don’t know what all this means and that I don’t have the answers to the questions I’m asking. Because of this, some people accuse me of not knowing if I’m coming or going, and I suppose that is a valid concern from an outside observer’s point of view. On the other hand, there are others who feel exactly the same way about the impact and the consequences of a real, authentic, and transparent life of faith and trust in God as we attempt to grasp the meaning of the Bible across the history of the Jewish people and the world.
The Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (UJRC) has established a written Standards of Observance (PDF) document that is intended to guide its member synagogues in the appropriate halakhic rulings as adapted for Messianic Jews, but it is only one body and cannot possibly represent all Jews who profess Yeshua as Messiah everywhere. It also, by necessity, defines a varying level of halakhic response for the non-Jewish disciples who come under the MJRC’s authority, but again, the scope if such authority is limited. These standards do not solve the problem or answer the questions I’ve been posing in today’s meditation however, but only because, like the multitude of Christian churches that exist today, it can’t, at least not outside its own community. We don’t have a universal legal and theological interpretation of scripture where “one size fits all.”
We long for the coming of Messiah. Christians desperately await the return of the King in all his glory. We have many reasons for doing so but one of the reasons I seek him and his presence is to help me understand who indeed on earth holds the “keys to the kingdom,” if anyone. Many claim to hold them or at least know the path on which to travel to find them. Many would-be “Messiahs,” religious leaders, pundits, and self-taught scholars of one stripe or another, profess to know “the truth.” But who are we to believe except God Himself, but how we understand God through the Bible and even through the Spirit, is split at least 41,000 ways, from a Christian perspective.
How am I to choose among 41,000 paths, and probably more if I factor in my own fascination with Judaism, as applied to my Christian faith? I can’t. I can only choose one of the myriad ways as they stand before me and start walking, trusting that God will not allow me to travel the wrong path, nor select a guide made out of my ego, my biases (at least not too severely), or my weaknesses, but only His Son, and the lamp of the throne of David.
May he and I walk together discovering the truth of his existence and my own. May God grant you this gift as well, for this may be all we can do until Messiah returns to rule in Jerusalem, and reveals clearly the One God and the One Way from His Temple.
Blessed is Hashem from Zion, He Who dwells in Jerusalem. Halleluyah!
–Psalm 135:21 (Stone Edition Tanakh)
For from Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.
–Micah 4:2 (Stone Edition Tanakh)
64 days from now, on my path, chosen from among 41,000 paths, (and probably more) where will I find myself?