Not a word is said in the “olive tree” passage (see Romans 11:11-24) or anywhere else in Scripture about splitting the promises into earthly ones for the Jews and heavenly ones for the Church. However, God has made two kinds of promises. In regard to the promises which relate to individual salvation, there is neither Jew nor Gentile (Galatians 3:28), no distinction between them (Romans 10:12), no dividing wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14-19). On the other hand, there remain promises to national Israel, the Jewish people, in which Gentile nations corporately and Gentile believers individually have no direct share – although it is worth noting that there are also promises to certain Gentile nations…
-David H. Stern, Ph.D
Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel: A Message for Christians
Chapter 2: “Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel,” pg 25.
The only reason I’m reading this book is because one of the Associate Pastors at my church asked me to read it and evaluate it for him. He’s obviously read it a number of times himself, because there is evidence of a great deal of note taking and underlining in its pages, so he must know its contents well. And yet, this charming, older gentleman from Oklahoma asked me if I’d read Stern’s small book and give him my opinion on how we can restore the Jewishness of the Gospel. Of course, I told him I’d be glad to.
But I was a little worried. My first introduction to Dr. David Stern was through his best known work, The Complete Jewish Bible and it was presented to me as a “real” Jewish Bible (New Testament, actually) within a Hebrew Roots (advertising itself as Messianic Judaism) congregation. I didn’t know any better and so I was thoroughly enthralled with what I read. Real “Hebrew” words were sprinkled among the English. Later, I found some Yiddish also anachronistically inserted within its pages. Ultimately though, I discovered that I desired a Bible that focused on accurate translation with no specific audience in mind.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand what Dr. Stern was trying to do, but there were already a number of New Testaments translated into Hebrew and many other Christian Bibles in English that would have served as well. Also, since I have separated myself from the “One Law” expression of the Hebrew Roots movement, Stern’s “Complete Jewish Bible” is a painful reminder of how incredibly naive I was once upon a time.
So in approaching Restoring, I was a little timid and figured what I was going to be reading would be “old school” Hebrew Roots at its finest.
Wow, was I surprised. The book is about 76 pages long, minus an appendix or two and I’m just on page 26 so far, but I was completely impressed. The writing and teaching is basic (but after all, Stern was trying to reach the widest possible Christian audience), but the ideas he documents are very close to what I’ve been trying to express. Given that I associate him with “One Law” and that his New Testament translation is still well-regarded in some Hebrew Roots circles, I just naturally believed his stance was in support of Hebrew Roots Christians rather than Messianic Jews.
Man, was I wrong.
I’m not writing this in any way as my response to the aforementioned Pastor, since he probably isn’t interested in this aspect of Stern’s book, but in recent conversations on Acts 15 commentary and why I go to church, I’ve entered a debate or two on why I believe (though it’s not as if I haven’t stated my reasoning many times before) that there are fundamental differences between Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ relative to identity and covenant obligation.
But theologically, the Jews are unique because God chose them as the vehicle for bringing salvation to the world. The entire Hebrew Bible attests to that, as does the New Testament (see Yochanan [John] 4:22; Romans 3:2, 9:4-5). The Jews are God’s people in a sense that applies to no other people on earth. Because of this, the New Testament abounds with theological Scyllas and Charybdis rocky places that offer dangerous passage. What other people is faced with Galatians 3:28 (“there is neither Jew nor Greek”) or Ephesians 2:11-22 (“the middle wall of the partition”)?
-Stern, pp 12-13
Notice what Stern doesn’t say. He doesn’t say that the Jews are theologically unique and identical to the Gentile Christians who have joined their ranks. He doesn’t obliterate Jewish identity and, from the quote above, Stern supports a view that God made unique promises to the Jews that are not shared with Gentile believers just because Christ performed a unique service in the plan of God and allowed the Gentiles to also be saved.
Some of the debates I’ve been having in the comments sections of some of my other blog posts lately have to do with the following:
But many believers feel uneasy about restoring Jewishness to the Gospel and encouraging Messianic Jews to express their Jewish identity. They fear an elitism will arise in which Gentile Christians will be made to feel like second-class citizens of the Kingdom. This is a real pitfall, and Scripture warns against division between Jew and Gentile in the Body of the Messiah. However, the New Testament also gives assurance that both are one in Yeshua, serving one God by one Spirit. Therefore, let all believers, both Jewish and Gentile, work together to avoid invidious comparisons, which only serve the Adversary. Let every Messianic Jew and every Gentile Christian demonstrate in his own life those elements of Jewishness which arise from his own spiritual consciousness and identity, without feeling condemned for expressing either too much or too little.
-Stern, pg 14
That last paragraph might seem ambiguous in terms of how Stern sees the differences between believing Jews and Gentiles, but put together with the other quotes, we see his opinion develop. Both Jews and Gentiles are unique in God’s plan but not in identical ways. They are united in salvation but do not share a uniform identity. There is danger in forgetting the uniqueness of the Jews, especially in light of how some Christians interpret scriptures such as Galatians 3:28 and Ephesians 2:11-22, as if the aforementioned uniqueness of the Jews was cast aside. Jewish believers must be allowed and encouraged to express a wholly lived Jewish identity by we Gentile Christians. To do that, we Christians must set aside our fears that the Jews will “take over” somehow, and cast the Gentiles out of their midst and “back into the churches.” Stern doesn’t seem to object to both Jews and Gentiles expressing “elements of Jewishness” (which should be a given for Jewish believers) but that which arise from “his own spiritual consciousness and identity (emph. mine).”
Recently I was chastised for my support of Boaz Michael’s book Tent of David (TOD), particularly as it inspired my own return to church. One of my (and Boaz Michael’s) especially passionate critics is Judah Himango, a long time blogger in the Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots space.
My interpretation of his response to me and particularly to Michael’s TOD book seems to be precisely what Stern predicts when he says, “…they fear an elitism will arise in which Gentile Christians will be made to feel like second-class citizens of the Kingdom.” Coupling TOD with the philosophy of “bilateral ecclesiology” presented in Mark Kinzer’s book Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People, a portrait of a Messianic Judaism that is plotting the expulsion of all Gentile Christians from their ranks disguised as a benign attempt to reconnect “Messianic” non-Jewish believers to their counterparts in the “Church” begins to emerge.
Or is it what Stern wrote about in 1988 and earlier; that the fear of Jewish elitism by Gentile Christians in the Messianic/Hebrew Roots realm, is still very much alive and kicking (and I’ve got the metaphorical boot prints on my backside to prove it)?
But do Hebrew Roots Christians really have anything to be afraid of?
Yes and no.
OK, let’s be fair. The people and groups within the expression of Messianic Judaism I’m discussing very much support Jewish unique identity and distinction within the larger body of Messiah. Much of Stern’s book addresses this in an attempt to help its Christian audience understand that when a Jew becomes a disciple of Jesus, they are not only allowed, but obligated to remain a Jew relative to Torah and halachah (although again, to be fair, Stern hasn’t addressed halachah as of page 26). Messianic Judaism walks a fine line in terms of Stern, because on the one hand, he encourages Jews to continue living as Jews and as having the right to be a unique people chosen by God, but on the other hand, he is insistent that uniqueness and distinction absolutely not get in the way of unity between Jewish and Gentile believers.
So far, he hasn’t outlined his vision for how believing Jews and Gentiles are supposed to be separate and unique and yet also united, except to say that we share equality in salvation but the Jews are unique in certain national promises from God.
I’m not offering this as a solution, but as an explanation and a reminder that this problem has been around for at least a few decades and it’s not going away anytime soon. But we are talking about relationships and identity that are based on fear and on who your group is opposed to and struggling against. Both Hebrew Roots and Messianic Judaism feel victimized by the other. Hebrew Roots fears Jewish elitism and that the Jewish believers will seize sole possession of the Torah mitzvot, and Messianic Jews see the encroachment of Gentile Christians who demand a “Jewish identity” identical to the Jews as a form of replacement resulting in the obliteration of everything it means to be Jewish.
It’s fear that is at the very heart of Hebrew Roots opposition to Michael’s TOD book, as if somehow elitist Messianic Judaism will “force” or “trick” the Hebrew Roots Christians back into their “church ghettos.”
I’m not afraid because I’ve already come to terms with who I am in Christ and what it all means. I have also come to terms with what (to the best of my ability to comprehend) it means for a Jew to possess a unique Jewish identity and role, mainly just because I live with a Jewish wife and have three Jewish children (although their apprehension of their lived Jewish identity varies from one child to the next). I’ve learned what it is to be a Christian living with Jews without having to worry about the distinctions between their identity and mine. I can go to church and not lose anything and in fact, I actually gain quite a bit…and I still get to live with my Jewish family…and they still get to be Jews…and my Christianity doesn’t have to inhibit or interfere with that in any way.
What some of the “fine bloggers” who are deeply concerned with the implication of Michael’s TOD book are missing are the myriads of voices across the Internet who here and there are saying that TOD is changing their lives for the better. TOD is helping people overcome their “fear of church.” People who I’ve known for years and who I never thought would see the inside of a church again are seeking out Christian Bible studies and worship services…largely because they read or are reading TOD and listening to the voice of reconciliation and restoration.
David Stern speaks of restoring the original Jewishness of the Gospel so that both Jews and Christians can hear the voice of the Jewish Messiah King. Boaz Michael speaks of healing the vision of the “Messianic Gentile” or the Christian who has become or is in the process of becoming aware of the “Jewishness of the Gospel;” Stern’s primary message to us. Michael may as well have written the sub-title of his book as restoring the vision of the Christian and the Church. If minds and hearts and relationships really, really are being healed because of this book and the overarching vision it presents, who are you or I to say that’s a bad idea. People are perfectly free to reject the message of healing if they so choose because of fear, because of prejudice against Christians (and sometimes against Jews), or for whatever reason.
But for every blogger who protests, how many people who we may never see or hear from are beginning a journey that will transform isolation, loneliness, broken fellowship, and sometimes, broken families, into a path leading to reunification and reconciliation? Most likely (though I only have anecdotal information to go by), a lot more of them are out there than there are bloggers who oppose those Christians and their mission.
I’ve said this before, but I’ve seen that it’s gone unnoticed, so I’ll repeat the message. Author Boaz Michael and his wife Amber are “walking the walk,” so to speak. For the past several years, Boaz and Amber have been attending a small Baptist church in their community in Missouri. To the best of my knowledge, this church is their only regular worship venue, so they infrequently are able to visit a Messianic (or otherwise) Jewish synagogue. Again, to the best of my knowledge, Boaz and Amber haven’t lost a thing by attending this church, and in fact they’ve gained fellowship and belonging and have shared their unique vision with the Church.
If they aren’t afraid of losing who they are by “going to church,” how should the rest of us feel? I suppose anyway we want. But if we are afraid of church, then we should be honest and ask ourselves why. I was certainly afraid of what returning to church would mean to me, but with a lot of help, I set those feelings aside. And in returning to church, I found that I could also encounter God within its walls and with other Christians. That doesn’t have to be you if you don’t want it to be, but please, don’t let it be fear, animosity, or hostility that stops you from walking that path or causes you to disdain those of us who do.
If you are confident that G‑d will help you, why is anxiety written all across your face? If you are truly confident, show it and celebrate!
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Oh, and I’ll let you know how the rest of Stern’s book turns out.