The Messiah precedes creation, precedes the nations, precedes the election of Israel, precedes the historical reality of the Jewish people. Apart from the Messiah these other realities would not be. They are because the Messiah first is, and because the Father wills them to be through the Messiah. The Messiah who is himself the gospel is before all. When he is born in the flesh as Jesus of Nazareth, and is “apocalypsed” in Israel, he comes to “his own” people (John 1:11). Before he belongs to this people, they belong to him. Because the messianic gospel is prior to all, the apostle Paul can declare that this gospel was announced beforehand (proeuengelisato) to Abraham (Gal 3:8) and that its content — blessing to the nations and resurrection from the dead (Rom 4) — was the same in the time of Abraham as it is in the time after the Messiah’s historical arrival, for the Messiah himself is that content.
“Chapter 26: Jewish Priority, Election, and the Gospel” (pp 273-4)
Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations
Like yesterday’s morning meditation, I’m not sure I’m receiving this essay in the way the author intended. For much of the past week in the comments section of my blog posts, I’ve been trying to defend the primacy of the Messiah, of Jesus, above all things. If not for the coming of Jesus and his presence both in our world and in the Court of Heaven at the Father’s right hand, we non-Jewish believers would have no relationship with God at all, and certainly no avenue to salvation and the life of the world to come. We would still be “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace… (Ephesians 2:12-13)
In debating Messiah with my friends and associates in the Hebrew Roots movement, we have been debating the avenues by which Gentiles are brought near to God. In the ancient days of Moses, a Gentile could become a resident alien among Israel but not a tribal member. They were aliens and foreigners, with no more rights than the widow or orphan. Only by intermarrying with a tribal member and having offspring would the third generation of their union be considered “Israel.”
But then, the Gentile distinctiveness of their line would vanish, fully assimilated and absorbed into Israel.
If that was the fullness of God’s plan, then all Gentiles who desired to join in the blessings of the covenants God made with Israel would have to join with Israel in the way of the Ger and their family line as people from the nations would cease to exist. There would be no way for the people of the nations to come and worship God and remain as people from among the nations. Only Israel would have the privilege. The rest of the world would be shut out.
But that was not God’s plan.
…hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.
–1 Kings 8:43
…and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, even the inhabitants of many cities. The inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the favor of the Lord and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going.’ Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’”
I know you’ve read all that before and quite recently, but it bears repeating, if only to drive the point home that God has always had a plan for the Gentile to bow to Him and worship Him without becoming a citizen of national Israel.
The problem is, in Hebrew Roots, the Torah tends to precede the dominance and Kingship of Messiah. For many in Hebrew Roots, the Torah has become so central, so important, so vital in their practice, particularly the ceremonial portions of Torah, (wearing tzitzit, laying tefillin, keeping kosher, observing Shabbos), that Messiah has become eclipsed and overshadowed.
Torah is the foundation of scripture to be sure, but is it greater than the living Word? In Jewish mysticism, the Torah was at creation and was required for creation, but we know, as Dr. Harink wrote, that Messiah preceded everything and is over everything including the Torah.
The priority of the gospel — that is, the priority of the Messiah — is also declared in the New Testament in respect to Israel’s Torah. In the Gospels Jesus displays an authority over the Torah that is noticed by all those who see his deeds and hear his words. That authority is nowhere more evident than in the familiar section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-48) where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…but I tell you…” The point here, as Jesus himself makes crystal clear, is not that his authority cancels (katalusai) the Torah and the Prophets; rather, Jesus by his own authority fulfills (plerosai) the Torah and Prophets (Matt 5:17). By his authority he authorizes their ongoing authority in Israel until “all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18), that is, until the messianic age arrives in fullness. But it is just as clear in the Gospels that the authority of the torah and the Prophets is subordinate to and dependent upon the authority of the Messiah as the Lord, and that their authority consists in their being read in the light of, and as witness to, the singular, normative messianity that is enacted by Jesus of Nazareth in his life, death, and resurrection.
-Harick, pg 274
When I was in the Hebrew Roots movement, I was taught that the Torah was the written Word while the Messiah was the living Word. They were interchangeable and basically equal to one another. The human life of Messiah was the personification of Torah in the flesh.
However, as we see from Harick, the Messiah must be in harmony with the Torah but ultimately, the Messiah must be King over all, including the Torah. We must worship Messiah, not Torah. We must bow to the King, not his scrolls.
This is not to say that the Torah becomes meaningless for Israel. Quite the contrary.
To observe Torah, then, is not primarily or essentially to “obey the rules”; it is, rather, to participate through concrete bodily practices in the very goodness and order and beauty of creation brought about by God through preexistent Wisdom and revealed to Israel in Torah.
-ibid, pg 275
We all observe Torah and participate in goodness, order, and beauty, Jew and Gentile believers alike, however, we do so in ways that illuminate and distinguish the Israel of God and the people of the nations who are called by God’s Name. Really, only a tiny fraction of the mitzvot are reserved to Israel alone. In most circumstances, Jewish and Gentile believers share equal responsibilities to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the widow, and to honor God in worship and prayer.
But above all the mitzvot is the one who is greater than the mitzvot, that is, King Messiah, Son of David. If he had not come and done a new thing in the world, we among the nations would be left out in the dark, locked out of the Kingdom, gnashing our teeth, shivering in the cold, and awaiting certain destruction.
We elevate Torah over the King at our own peril and we all should know that the Torah has never been greater than Messiah, for only faith in Messiah can save. Only the Messiah can reunify what has been separated, and only he can bring final peace in the world.
His messianic mission to the nations is for the sake of Israel; his solidarity with Israel is for the sake of the nations (Rom 11:11-12). The mystery of the gospel is messianic peace between Israel and the nations, a peace that is even now, in the single messianic “day” that reaches from the Messiah’s arrival in suffering to his arrival in glory…
…Jews and Gentiles together in the messianic theopolitical reality called the ekkesia — where Jews as Jews practice Torah, the telos of which is given in the Messiah, and Gentiles as Gentiles work out their own salvation in fear and trembling in the Messiah…
-ibid, pg 279
I suppose it’s only fitting that I end the last review at the end of the David Rudolph and Joel Willitts book with the conclusion written by Joel Willitts. We saw how David Rudolph began the book with is personal story and an exercise in wholeness, as I called it.
Willitts describes himself as an “outsider” to the Messianic Jewish movement while also maintaining close ties to this community, especially through his close friendship with David Rudolph, forged in their days as doctorate students at Cambridge.
It is because of our friendship and my continued interest in the Jewish context of the New Testament that the present book has emerged. It’s two parts neatly paralleled my relationship with David and his community on the one hand, and my passion for reading the New Testament and its message in more thoroughly Jewish ways on the other.
“Conclusion” (pg 316)
Christians typically have no problem keeping Christ as the head of everything, the King above all Kings, and conversely subordinating the Torah way too far below where it needs to be and Israel along with it. In some ways, it’s Gentile Christians like Dr. Willitts who are the bridge between two worlds. As Messianic Judaism is the linkage between Messiah and the larger Jewish community, Gentile Christians with a passion for the “Jewish New Testament” connect that passion back into the church.
Mark is an intelligent guy without formal theological training. He is a mature Christian and intellectually curious. Mark asked me what I was writing and I mentioned this book. He had heard of Messianic Judaism before, but like most Gentile Christians he knew nothing about it. So I began to describe what the book was about. After giving Mark the big picture, he asked the million-dollar question, “So what is its significance to our church?” Mark’s “our church” is my church; it is a larger seeker-sensitive suburban Chicago upper-middle-class church full of Gentile Christians…What a great question.
-ibid, pg 317
It is a great question. It’s a terrific question.
As I imagined Willitts and his friend Mark talking about “Introduction to Messianic Judaism” at their church and discussing what it all means to their church, I thought back to my weekly conversations with Pastor Randy in his office and the significance of those talks to our church. I also thought back to Boaz Michael’s book Tent of David, and I saw that the latter part of the Rudolph/Willitts book (part 1, Chapters 1-12, was written largely by Jewish authors and Part 2, chapters 13 through the end, was written by mostly Christian scholars) and the focus of Michael’s TOD book were virtually the same.
“So what is its significance to our church?”
I don’t want to simply replicate all of the answers Willitts provides, but as you might imagine, the purpose of Introduction for Christians is to do what it has done for me. It informs its Christian audience of what Messianic Judaism looks like on the inside, letting us hear the voices of Messianic Jews tell their story and how they understand the Bible.
It also opens the doorway to a post-supersessionist church, a topic near and dear to my heart, whereby Christians can see and enter into a world of believing Jews and Gentiles who work together, worship together, and love God together, without either side having to surrender the specialness and unique calling God has provided for each branch within the ekklesia of Messiah.
Willitts also discusses the reimaging of church planting and missions using an Israel-centered interpretation of the New Testament, reminds Gentile Christians that we are the branch, not the root, and makes us aware of our responsibilities to the individual and communal requirements of the needy, the poor, the sick and injured among Messiah’s people Israel, and particularly among those who are disciples of Christ.
Willitts ends the book with his personal translation of Galatians 6:16:
Peace on them, and mercy also on the Israel of God.
I hope this series of reviews of David Rudolph’s and Joel Willitts’ book “Introduction to Messianic Judaism” has spoken to you on some level, whether you are Jewish or Gentile. I hope that you can see their intent was to build a bridge between our different worlds. For nearly two thousand years, the Jewish people and Gentile Christianity have traced divergent trajectories across the plane of human history, but God has always planned to bring all people to Him through Messiah Yeshua, Christ Jesus.
This can and will be done without requiring the Jewish people to surrender their Torah, their Talmud, their lifestyles and their shalom as Jews. This can and will be done without requiring all of the people from all of the other nations of the earth to acquire a lifestyle, a culture, a language that is Jewish, without converting to Judaism, and without being told that not being Jewish and not living the lifestyle and observing the mitzvot of the Jewish people somehow makes them…makes us second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God and in the world to come.
We can all be exactly who God created us to be and we can all be delighted that God made us the way He did. The Jewish person is no more loved by God than the Gentile Christian and the Gentile Christian is no more loved by God than the Jewish person. We are all one in Messiah, two unique streams of people within a single Messianic body, bringing infinite diversity in infinite combinations to the “feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 8:11) with the King of Israel as the King over all.
Deeper than the wisdom to create is the wisdom to repair. And so, G‑d built failure into His world, so that He could give Man His deepest wisdom: The wisdom to repair.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson