Shepherd, Pens, and Flock, Part 1

ancient_beit_dinThe apostles, after some deliberation, dispensed four rulings. Their letter to these Gentiles who are coming to faith indicated that they must abstain:

  • from what has been sacrificed to idols
  • from blood
  • from what has been strangled
  • from sexual immorality

The text of the letter is found in Acts 15:23-29. (Re-statements of these rulings appear in Acts 15:20, 21:25. Also note that manuscript variants exist with different versions of this list.)

Numerous and varied interpretations exist as to the exact intent and purpose of these rulings. Regardless, it is unreasonable to think that these four laws constitute the complete list of obligations of a Gentile before God. They say nothing about stealing, oppression, justice, or honor for parents, for example. Furthermore, the laws are not specific enough to be practical. What, for example, constitutes “sexual immorality”? Where does one go to find that definition, if not the Torah?

Regardless of their exact meaning and purpose, we can see from these rulings that they are not an end, but a beginning of a Gentile’s journey into a life conformed to God’s will. Consider the rationale for these four prohibitions:

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues. (Acts 15:19-21)

What purpose does it serve to mention the fact that [the Torah of] Moses is read every Sabbath in the synagogues in conjunction with the list of obligations for Gentiles?

-Aaron Eby
“Divine Invitation”
Adapted from Messiah Journal #100
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

As my regular readers must realize by now, I’ve been writing “fast and furious” about the topics of halachah in the Messianic Jewish world and the application of the Torah commandments to Christianity. I feel as if I’m trying to think in two opposite directions simultaneously, and it’s giving me a headache. But it’s also fascinating me and as you can tell, I can’t put these topics down. It is or should be part of the continual dialog between the believing Jewish and Gentile communities, and provide a point where we can meet to compare our similarities and our differences; a place in the meadow where the sheep from the two sheep pens participate in the flock of the Good Shepherd (see John 10:1-18).

I’m not a real fan of the term “divine invitation,” mainly because I don’t think it can be derived from the Bible or even necessarily implied. I’d rather have the Christian’s role in relation to Judaism defined by a more substantial mission.

That doesn’t mean to say that I disagree with Aaron, but his article poses more questions than answers. He suggests that more of the Torah and the Prophets apply to the Gentile church than what is intimated in the “Jerusalem letter,” but he doesn’t define just how far we are to take it. I suppose the answers are contained elsewhere, but I’m not going to wait until I can discover their location in order to comment.

Aaron says correctly that Israel has always been intended to be a light to the nations (Deuteronomy 4:5-8, Isaiah 49:1-6). This “light” is to extend well beyond the first coming of the Messiah and project itself far into the Messianic Age (Micah 4:1-2, Isaiah 42:1-4). He even goes so far as to suggest that Messiah always meant the Torah to be the light for the Gentiles:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others [anthropon, literally “men, humans, mankind”], so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 5:14-16

praying-jewish-womanBut as I’ve previously said, just how was and is the Torah meant to be applied to the Jewish and Gentile populations of believers? As I’ve met Aaron and I know Boaz Michael as well as the philosophy of FFOZ. I know they don’t believe in a theology that does away with Jewish identity and fuses Jew and Gentile believers into a homogeneous mass of generic humanity, but how we Gentiles are to “do” Torah has never been clear, except as an effect of love of God and of humanity, which I have commented on and related to the new commandment of Messiah.

I did suggest to my Pastor not too long ago that if a Christian wanted to voluntarily choose to take on additional mitzvot as a personal conviction, it would not be such a bad thing. The fact that he lived in Israel for fifteen years meant, in his case, that he did observe such things as Shabbat and a form of kosher, because his environment supported it. Granted, the environment outside of Israel is less friendly to Jewish observance, particularly among Christians, but that doesn’t mean a Christian who is so led can’t perform some of the same “Torah” out of love and solidarity, especially in interfaith families such as mine.

But why can’t Gentile Christians simply mimic Jewish religious behavior down to the last detail? I mean, what’s the problem if, as Aaron says, the Torah is for the Gentiles, too?

Each human being possesses a unique combination of personality, talents, timing and circumstances – a specific role to play in this world. Our role is dependent on many factors – not only our innate talents, but also on the needs of the times.

The important thing is to discover your unique contribution – and fulfill it.

The Torah tells us that one day Moses saw an Egyptian taskmaster killing a Jew.

“And Moses looked all around, and when he saw that there was no man, he took action.” (Exodus 2:11-12)

Why does the Torah tell us “there was no man”? Because Moses was checking to see if someone else was available, someone better qualified to do the job. Because if you reach for leadership when it’s not necessary, then you’re doing it more out of your own desire than for the needs of the people. Only when Moses saw there was nobody else qualified, did he take action.

-Rabbi Noah Weinberg
“Way #26: Know Your Place”
from 48 Ways to Wisdom

If Gentile Christians were to observe the mitzvot in a manner completely like the Jewish people, then the most straightforward way to accomplish this would be for Jews to convert Gentiles to Judaism. While such a process didn’t exist in the days of Moses because Israel was organized around tribal identity, and after the Babylonian exile, around clan identity (see Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Westminster John Knox Press; 2006) it was completely available in the days of Jesus. But that didn’t happen in the New Testament as the application of Christ’s Matthew 28:19-20 command. We see this acted out by Peter in response to Cornelius and his household:

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Acts 10:44-48 (ESV)

Notice what didn’t happen here. If it had been Peter’s intention to convert the Gentiles to Judaism, between Cornelius and his household receiving the Holy Spirit and being baptized in water, Peter should have arranged for Cornelius and the other men to be circumcised. He didn’t and in fact, we don’t see any of the new disciples of Christ from among the nations ever converting to Judaism (I believe Timothy was considered Jewish because of his Jewish mother and that’s why Paul circumcised him). Paul spent a great deal of effort in his letter to the Galatians specifically discouraging them from converting, and as I’ve said before, also citing Paul from Galatians, if you’re not a Jew or a righteous convert, you are not obligated to the full “yoke of Torah,” both as defined by the actual Books of Moses and the Prophets, and by accepted halachah.

the_shepherd1Rabbi Weinberg suggests that we are each created for a purpose as individuals and should pursue that purpose in order to fulfill God’s design for our lives. What if it’s true that God’s intent was and is to have a specific purpose for the Jews and another (and perhaps overlapping) specific purpose for the Gentile Christians?

Jesus opens all the doors and holds all the keys. He is the portal by which we Gentiles enter into any sort of covenant relationship with God at all, and he also fully reconciles and restores the Jewish nation to the Father as the fulfillment of all His covenants with and His promises to the Jewish people. Make no mistake, the Sinai covenant made between God and Israel didn’t vanish simply because Messiah came. It would be insane to suggest otherwise. Not only did Jesus live a lifestyle in obedience to Torah and not only did his teachings support Torah and the Temple, but his Jewish disciples were never seen to do otherwise, either. The history of the Messianic movement forward isn’t abundantly clear, but I don’t believe that next generation of Jews after Paul and Peter were any less Jewish even as they continued to worship Jesus as Messiah (we never see Paul, for example, telling Timothy that he doesn’t have to observe the mitzvot as a Jew).

But that’s a direction I’m saving for part 2 of this article. For now, although we don’t have an image we could define as crystal clear regarding just how far to apply Torah to Christians, we do know that it is well-applied in the weighty matters of the Law: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.

11 thoughts on “Shepherd, Pens, and Flock, Part 1”

  1. How about Ephesians chapter 6:

    Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”

    Here Sha’ul is instructing the children of Greek parents to specifically keep the 6th commandment. The immediate implication is that non-Jewish believers were not only given permission to keep Torah, they were obligated to do so. In this instance it was to obtain the promise attached to the commandment and to receive all the other benefits that come with obedience to the commandments of YHWH. Which brings us to the obligation of all believers in Messiah to walk in the righteousness of Torah. An obligation that can only be fulfilled by a walk in the Ruach of YHWH. Or so says Sha’ul to the congregation in Galatia.

    And you’re right, covenants don’t vanish. But they can be replaced. That is the discretion of the one giving the covenants.

    Which is why Sha’ul refers us back to the covenant YHWH made with Avraham. A covenant of promise given to an uncircumcised Chaldean man as an example to help the congregation in Galatia understand the new covenant that had been made with all the nations through faith in the finished work of Messiah Yeshua.


  2. Part of what I’ve been trying to say is that the responsibilities of the Jewish and Gentile believers overlap but are not wholly identical. That means we no doubt share many of the same mitzvot. That would certainly include honoring parents. Acts 15 was a foundation but not the final word of the Council or the Holy Spirit.

    Scattered across my many blog posts, I’ve already said that there must be more involved in Christian “Torah observance” than what we see in Acts 15. Certainly the lifestyles of even the Gentile God-fearers let alone the early Gentile disciples looked a lot more “Jewish” than people look in the church today. All I’m saying is that Christians and Jews don’t have a fused identity and that God didn’t remove the uniqueness from the Children of Israel so he could give it to everyone and anyone.

    Yes a “New Covenant” (as we see recorded in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36) exists but a plain reading of those texts reveals they are largely a reiteration and a strengthening of the covenants God had previously made with Israel (so God isn’t replacing anything as far as I can tell). Yeshua briefly mentions the new covenant (although the word “new” isn’t in the oldest texts) during his last seder (if it was a seder) with his disciples, but we have to look to Paul to flesh it out, and even his writings leave us wondering how it all works.

    I don’t see a “smoking gun” where either Jesus or Paul is saying to the Gentiles, “you are the identical in identity to the Jewish disciples.” If that was and is God’s intent, Jesus would simply have instructed his Jewish disciples to convert the Gentiles to Judaism and that would have solved the identity problem. Peter had the perfect opportunity to do so with Cornelius and his household, but didn’t. Thus Gentiles are not Jews and they maintain separate identities.

    Someone suggested to me in an email today that the application of Torah to the Gentile disciples was left somewhat ambiguous because the more mature and diligent a Gentile disciple became, the more of the Torah mitzvot they could take on board. Given the problems Paul and Barnabas encountered in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:13-52), it seems that trying to integrate especially a large number of non-Jews into a Jewish worship space was the real difficulty.

    I don’t think the problem is Christians taking on additional mitzvot as they are led, it’s when Gentiles attempt to say that they are “obligated” to all of the mitzvot and start stepping all over Jewish identity, essentially rendering Jewish people moot.

    As far as Jewish uniqueness goes, including applying traditional halachah within the Messianic Jewish context, I’ll address that in tomorrow’s morning blog post.

  3. I’ve personally never noted any of God’s covenants going “away”, they seem more to “build” upon one another, and as James addressed a lot of reiteration. Was not the whole of the Law summed up by Christ in 2 Commands? If we apply the depth & brevity of those 2 we have a good portion of the whole covered, the only “odd” thing that would be “hung out” would be the Sabbath, but perhaps recognizing that was part of the Love for God? I’ve always been struck by the fact that “keeping the Sabbath” didn’t appear as a Command till Moses, yet dates back to creation, should we have always known? Did people know? It’s not covered in the early writings, but maybe it was there and just not noted? Thanx again for a thought provoking article, I do believe that this one clears up some “left open” from the previous.

  4. Jimm, there’s a Part 2 to this article, though it address the “Jewish side of the coin,” plus there’s another blog post after that, based on my correspondence with an interested party that should add some further details. As far as conclusions, we can only do what we can and ask God to help us not only know truth, but live it.

  5. As far as the covenants overlapping and building on one another, I could, and many times in the past have, said that was true. But having re-read recently the promise of the new covenant in Hebrew I would now have to disagree. There are two words for “new” in Hebrew. They are both spelled the same and pronounced the same. A homophone as it were. But the vowel pointing on the one is different from the other and hence the meanings are different. One word means to renew something. And the other means to start fresh.

    I had always thought that in Jeremiah that the wording meant to renew the previous covenant. And that seemed to fit with the rest of the text. Until I learned that the word used actually means new, fresh. Then the part where YHWH says ,”not like the covenant I made with your fathers” made more sense. The prophecy is clearly about bringing a fresh, new covenant to the two houses.

    And that fits well with the teachings in Galatians and Hebrews.

    The fleshly, cultural identity thing is really a distraction. If the statement, “by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, ” doesn’t make clear the purpose of Messiah for His people, regardless of where they came from, then I really don’t know what else to say.

    There are already divisions within the body of Messiah. Causing or maintaining them would be a serious error. Our solutions will not found among ourselves. We simply can’t, or won’t, agree on issues we feel are too important to be left to some interpretation of scriptural writings.

    And as always, if we are honest about what we are really interested in, it usually comes down to a matter of who is going to be in charge.

  6. Obviously, you have an advantage over me in your ability to read Hebrew, so I can’t dispute that part of your narrative, but if you are correct, then the rest of the text in relevant portions of the Tanakh doesn’t make a lot of sense. More than one word would have to change to give a coherent meaning to the New Covenants scripture presented in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36.

    On the other hand, can we say what exactly is “new?” Does the “new” have to completely delete the “old” or build on it. I could make an argument that what is “new” is the ability for the nations to enter into covenant relationship with God without taking on “Israelite” identity and fully performing the mitzvot. There’s no reason to “delete” the Israelites/Jews as a people and a nation to recreate them as an amorphous mass that fuses Jews and (Gentile) Christians.

    The result of your interpretation, as I read it, is that all Jews everywhere must stop being Jewish and become just like the believing goyim or all goyim must stop being “of the nations,” so to speak, and become “Jewish” relative to all of the Jewish identity behaviors.

    Either way, what God did for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob becomes obliterated, and yet in Romans 11 Paul said that his brothers (the Jews) would be only temporarily blinded for the sake of the Gentiles (and Paul seems to be drawing a distinction between these two groups here).

    Fleshly vs. spiritual was probably not a theology that Paul would have understood, since “religion” has only been a separate concept from the rest of a lived existence for the past few hundred years or so. Especially in the late Second Temple period, Paul (and every other Jew) wouldn’t have understood his “observant” life from anything else he did, but then again, the Torah covers just about everything, and the halachah of his day would have addressed the rest. Life for Paul, wouldn’t be separated between “flesh” and “spiritual.” It’s just life.

    The whole “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” thing can as easily be explained as the halachah that had been established to separate Jews and Gentiles, which was the point of Peter’s vision on the tanner’s rooftop we see in Acts 10. God had made the goyim “clean” so there was no reason for Peter to refrain from fellowship with Gentile God-fearers and disciples. Marry the concept of “one new man” with “neither man nor woman, Jew nor Greek” and you can see “different people and people groups” as “one” without actually obliterating their differences and requiring homogenization.

  7. If an entire new covenant is the case, then words like eternal, perpetual, ever lasting, and so on could not have been used by God in the previous covenants, surely He would know if they we’re going away. Jesus kept Torah, correct? Paul, Peter, and the best we can tell the rest of the disciples as well, correct? If it wasn’t to be why didn’t they stop? Just some quick random thoughts that came to me as I read this.

  8. Well I suppose that when my comments are taken to the extreme in order to diffuse their meaning, then I really don’t think that I can properly respond to that.

    There are so many straw men in the responses that I’m inclined to be concerned about a fire.

    Sha’ul always made a very clear distinction between the flesh and the Spirit. They are contrary, the one to the other, so that you cannot do the things that you would.n Look through Galatians again.

    Really, does loving my neighbor look different from a spiritual perspective if I perform the mitzvot as a Jew as opposed to a Gentile?

    If I properly observe the mitzvot of the Torah in a circumcised or uncircumcised condition, does that matter? Messiah says no. What are people saying?

    If I walk in the Spirit am I under the curse of the Torah? If the just shall live by faith, does my observance of Torah commands nullify that faith?

    The righteousness of YHWH is eternal. The specific observances He said would continue throughout all the generations will do just that.

    But if righteousness comes by the keeping of Torah then Messiah has died in vain. He has brought a covenant that wasn’t needed. We can do it. Why would we need a covenant where the weight of Torah has been lifted from us? We just need to sort out who does what when and who is in charge.


  9. But if righteousness comes by the keeping of Torah then Messiah has died in vain.

    I think that was Paul’s point too, and yet so there are a number of Gentiles who insist that they must keep the Torah the same as the Jews in order to worship God. I never said that righteousness comes from keeping the Law, it comes by faith. But that doesn’t remove Jewish obligation to the covenant made at Sinai.

    Typically when I hear “flesh” juxtaposed against “spirit,” I tend to think tha the “flesh” of the Jews (that is inheritance of the covenant based on being born Jewish) is considered “bad” and “spirit” (i.e. faith of a Christian in Jesus) is considered good. That’s probably not what you mean but it’s what I experience as “typical church language” when they want to discount Judaism in favor of Christianity.

    Paul was also the one to say he was a “Pharisee of Pharisees” and he wasn’t putting himself down when he outlined his extensive and impressive credentials as a Jew. He just said that by comparison, they didn’t hold a candle to Messiah, so again, no righteousness through the Law.

    For a Jew, the mitzvot and faith in Messiah aren’t mutually exclusive.

    Yes, God is in charge but how we understand Him, His intent, and how we are to apply His commands isn’t always clear to we human beings, hence these conversations.

  10. “I’ve always been struck by the fact that “keeping the Sabbath” didn’t appear as a Command till Moses, yet dates back to creation, should we have always known? Did people know?”

    I would say the clue is in the word remember. Remember is meant for going forward and for remembering back to the beginning when G-d rested..

    Remember the Sabbath Day is Holy…. Remember to keep it so.

  11. The Sabbath is interesting for me because on the one hand, it’s a sign covenant that specifically references the Children of Israel and is a reminder that God took them out of the land of Egypt and slavery. On the other hand, Isaiah 56:6 seems to suggest it’s a little more “universal,” or at least it will be. Plus the God-fearers and the first Gentile disciples of Jesus probably worshipped on the Sabbath, so the concept would have been very familiar to them. Shabbat is one of the mitzvot I see as being readily accessible to Christians today who want to voluntarily accept greater portions of the commandments.

    Oh, by the way, I just want to let everyone reading this know that it’s been quite a week on the blogosphere. Some conversations have gotten a little tense, but I want to remind everyone, including myself, that these discussions shouldn’t get to the point of separating us from fellowship, even if we disagree. I apologize if I have sometimes “gone too far” in my responses and it was never my intention to hurt anyone (this is especially true of you, Russ).

    I’ll try to write a “conclusion” to this week, hopefully sometimes tomorrow, but there is one more “extra meditation” that I will need to published today to round things out.

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