Introduction to Messianic Judaism: The Non-Climax of Covenant

sprout-root-of-jesseBeginning with the call of Abraham, the history of redemption is the history of God’s election of his chosen people from among the nations. As Paul argues in Romans 15:7-13, God’s commitment to Israel for the sake of the nations forms the bedrock of the Church’s hope. Viewed from this perspective, Messianic Judaism reminds us not only of God’s faithfulness demonstrated in Israel’s history, and of his grace, now magnified in the Messiah, but also of his promises for the future of his people, to be fulfilled in the final redemption of Jews and Gentiles.

-Scott J. Hafemann
“Chapter 19: The Redemption of Israel for the Sake of the Gentiles,” pg 206
Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations
David J Rudolph and Joel Willitts, editors

I reviewed most but not all of the chapters in the Rudolph and Willitts book and I probably skipped this one. I tried to be thorough, but all together I wrote eleven separate reviews of different portions of this book. It’s really worthy of that kind of attention, and I’m grateful to the book’s publisher, Zondervan, for including links to my reviews in an email they sent to their academic readers.

I bring up the Hafemann chapter because last Wednesday, my Pastor, who’s been reading this book, mentioned that he had just read it and really enjoyed what Hafemann had to say. I have to admit that I read this book only once and that was months ago, so I didn’t immediately recall the content. I decided to re-read Hafemann’s article to see what Pastor Randy might have liked about it. I was curious, since we don’t always agree on the nature and character of Messianic Judaism.

Before continuing, I should say that I’ve written blog after blog on how we non-Jewish believers in the Jewish Messiah are dependent upon the covenant relationship God established with the Jewish people and Israel for our own redemption and salvation and, without Israel, we would have no link to the God of Heaven at all. As Hafemann says:

Given the development of this Jew-Gentile theme throughout Romans, it is not surprising, though often overlooked, that it is precisely the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, both in history and within the church, that forms “the climax of the epistle…”

-ibid, pp 206-7

Most Christians probably wouldn’t get this, since historically, supersessionist theology has taught that the church replaced Jews and Judaism in the promises of God. Most non-Jewish believers don’t recognize any sort of relationship with, let alone a dependence upon, the Jewish people by the Gentile Christian Church. More’s the pity.

However, Hafemann’s focus is not just on the past or even the present, but on the future of this relationship and what it means for us all.

We must be cautious at (Romans) 15:7, however. Redemptive history is not over for Jews and Gentiles as Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s careful use of the Scriptures in Romans 15:9-12 makes it clear that the present church, made up of a small remnant of Jews and Gentiles, is not the final fulfillment of Israel’s hope for restoration, as if God’s covenant promises “climaxed” with the first coming of the Messiah.

-ibid, pg 207

Given my recent conversations with Pastor, I’m a little puzzled at his enthusiasm over statements like this one, or perhaps we simply are reading this material differently. What I read is a couple of things. First, within the body of Messiah (i.e. “church”), Jews remain Jews and Gentiles remain Gentiles. The distinctions continue to exist, which for me, means that distinctions based on separate or overlapping responsibilities to God, relative to Torah, continue to exist in the present. The Second point is that the first coming of Messiah did not “finish the job,” so to speak, and that Christ’s work of restoring (notice Hafemann said “restoration,” not “salvation” … there’s a difference) Israel will not be addressed and completed until his return.

LichtensteinPastor and I go ’round and ’round about what “fulfilled” means, and he says a lot of Jewish identity and the Torah is “fulfilled” as in no longer active except in pointing to Messiah. To me, “fulfilled” is to “fill full,” as in, the Messiah is the perfect example of what it is to be a Torah observant Jewish person, and the example and role model to be emulated by all Jewish believers everywhere. The Torah goes forward in time and as 19th century Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein observed, Jesus as Messiah gives the fullness of meaning and holiness to the performance of the mitzvot for an observant Jew.

I don’t think the above-quoted paragraph of Hafemann’s can be true unless Rabbi Lichtenstein’s life experience as an observant Jewish believer is true.

My Pastor is a great believer in the future of Jewish Israel in eschatology, which is what Hafemann is discussing a well. Israel has a future role in the plan of God and the rest of us are dependent on Israel meeting and fulfilling that role for the sake of humanity.

My Pastor tells a story that illustrates how rare Hafemann’s and Pastor’s perspectives are. Pastor was at a conference on one occasion some years ago when, by chance, he was seated next to a rather well-known and published Christian author and theologian (Pastor mentioned his name, but I didn’t recognize it and, in any event, it would be poor form on my part to use it here). The conversation turned to Revelation and eschatology, and the topic of the 144,000 (see Revelation 7:4-8) came up. Pastor believes that they are literally the twelve tribes of Israel, 12,000 per tribe, while this renowned Christian writer and preacher said that the 144,000 represented the church in allegory.

Pastor said that if their conversation had ended at that point, they probably would have parted amicably, but Pastor added one more sentence. He said something like (I’m paraphrasing, of course), “I suppose one tribe would be the Baptists, and the next tribe would be the Presbyterians, and the next tribe would be…”

Our highly esteemed Christian theologian pointedly shifted around in his chair to show Pastor as much of his back as possible in a very obvious snub.

Interestingly enough, Pastor and I were both trying to make a point based in this sort of behavior, but we were making different points.

His point is that no matter who in Christianity has such beliefs and attempts to delete Jews and the Jewish tribes from future redemptive history, their opinions don’t matter because they aren’t speaking from Scripture. My point was that Christianity is still dominated by such poor attitudes of future Judaism and that most of the believers sitting in the pews, and particularly those who read this gentleman’s books, are going to swallow his story hook, line, and sinker and believe that it’s all “gospel.”

The conclusion to Hafemann’s chapter tells the story that the Gentile Christian church should read and take to heart.

Our passage thus gives no ground for seeing Israel’s identity and eschatological hopes reconfigured into Christ and/or the present Church, having been transformed by Paul into exclusively present realities. Redemptive history does not become abstracted into the “Christ-event” or personalized into an eschatological “community,” but continues on after Christ’s coming and establishment of the Church just as concretely and historically as it did before. The “climax of the covenant” remains Israel’s future restoration for the sake of the nations. Moreover, it is precisely this climax to the covenant that secures the believer’s salvific hope in the return of Christ. In light of God’s promises to the patriarchs (Romans 15:8), the Messiah, as the servant to the circumcision, must come again to judge the nations in order to restore Israel and save the Gentiles (15:12; cf. 11:29). Messianic Judaism puts flesh on the (Ezekiel-)bones of this crucial conviction.

-ibid, pp 212-13

ancient_jerusalem(As an aside, I’m just a tad uncomfortable with Hafemann’s referring to the united Jewish-Gentile body of Messiah as “Church,” since the word implies removing the Jewishness from the Jewish members, but I think I know where he’s coming from.)

I can’t read the above-quoted paragraph any other way but to say that there is no “climax of the covenant” at the cross and in fact, this “climax” will not occur until the return of Messiah and all that must be done is finally completed. In fact, the covenant can’t climax, according to Hafemann, until Messiah returns, restores Israel for the sake of the nations, and judges the nations for the sake of Israel.

The logical implication of Hafemann (and no, he didn’t say so explicitly) is that if God’s covenant relationship with Israel didn’t climax at the cross, and must not climax until after the second coming and the progression of all the events subsequently required by prophesy, then Jewish covenant identity and responsibility to God has not been reduced, eliminated, and certainly is not “fulfilled” at the cross and is not done in the present age (with the understanding that many of the mitzvot are held in abeyance since the Temple, the functional Priesthood, and the Sanhedrin currently do not exist).

Jewish people remain distinctly Jewish people in the covenant, which includes all of their covenant responsibilities, the Torah mitzvot, to God.

My understanding of this small chapter probably is different than my Pastor’s, at least on this point, but again, I can’t see any other way of reading Hafemann. The Torah didn’t “climax” at the end of the Gospels and indeed, the covenant remains for the Jewish people, including and especially the Jewish believers in Yeshua, until his return and for some time afterward.

7 thoughts on “Introduction to Messianic Judaism: The Non-Climax of Covenant”

  1. “Pastor and I go ’round and ’round about what “fulfilled” means, and he says a lot of Jewish identity and the Torah is “fulfilled” as in no longer active except in pointing to Messiah.”

    Regarding “fulfillment”, it is taught that Passover was one of the “fulfilled” feasts, yet Yeshua says differently:

    Luke 22:16
    For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”

    Have you and your Pastor discussed this?

  2. Unfortunately, I can’t always hold the entire Bible in “active memory” in my brain during our discussions, so I think that one slipped past me. Good catch, though. I’ll have to remember it. Thanks.

  3. In some popular theological systems the “kingdom of God” is believed to be entirely a present day spiritual reality with no expectation of a coming physical reality, so the problem Ruth raises could be dodged.

    They see that the 1000 year reign of Jesus started at His resurrection. Of course the 1000 years spoken of in Revelation has to taken to be “symbolic” now that we are approaching the completion of a second post-resurrection 1000 years. Its the same kind of thinking that “spritualises” or reinterprets other parts of scripture so that “the church” can be transformed into a spiritual “Israel” allowing God to turn back on His promises to the original physical Israel.

  4. Actually Tim, Pastor believes in a literal 1000 year Messianic reign to begin upon Messiah’s return, so he wouldn’t use that dodge. So Ruth is correct in that Yeshua’s statement indicates a future fulfillment of the Passover, not one that has already happened.

    Thanks, Genevieve.

  5. I LIKE YOUR BLOG! I like Scott Hafemann. I like wanting to know even for us who are not pastors or preachers. I can’t be a teacher either because I’m in the PCA and don’t take much to putting water on babies foreheads. But I do want to know… I hope you take Pastor out for fly fishing or something and that you are always kind to him. Kindness is for those of us with real hormones.

  6. Thanks for the enthusiastic comments, Rod. I won’t be going fishing or anything else with my Pastor anytime soon since he’s buried with his doctorate program and other priorities. Hopefully, we’ll be able to pick out dialog up again sometime in February.

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