What is the “church?” Who belongs to the church? How is the church related to Judaism or is the church related to Judaism in the current age? These are the questions my Pastor and I discussed last Wednesday night. Sometimes, when we talk of these puzzling subjects, I have a difficult time conceptualizing my thoughts and feelings and articulating them while I’m with him in his office. So I ponder, and think, and occasionally, I draw (you’ll see what I mean as you scroll down while reading).
I think I’ve come up with a “vision” of Pastor’s understanding of the evolution of the church from its beginnings in Judaism as well as my own “vision.” I apologize to Pastor and to you in advance for any misunderstanding I have of his point of view. He recently pointed out to me how I didn’t have a correct understanding of his view of the “end times” (which I blogged about) and sometime soon, I’ll need to post a retraction (he told me he doesn’t find a retraction or correction necessary, but I find it necessary if I intend to be honest in my transactions with him and everyone else).
First things first. There are some areas we necessarily agree upon. God made a covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob involving promises relating to the Land of Israel, making their descendants very numerous, promises that they would be a blessing to all nations (through Messiah), and that circumcision would be the physical sign between God and the specific, biological descendants of Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob that their descendants would be the inheritors of these covenant promises.
The patriarchs came from Jacob and the twelve tribes of Israel came from the patriarchs. Moses led the twelve tribes out of slavery in Egypt and God redeemed them as His special people, as per the promises made to Abraham and his descendants. God then added to His promises at Sinai and gave the Torah, the teaching and instruction for righteous living to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This also functions as the national constitution of Israel, and has multiple other purposes.
At this point in history, Gentiles can only join Israel as gerim, which isn’t exactly conversion. The idea is that a Gentile would do what the Israelites would do in terms of the mitzvot, but the Gentiles would never become Israelites in their generation. More like resident aliens. No one can convert to a tribe or a family clan. Only after the third generation, would the ger’s children have intermarried into tribal Israel and ultimately assimilate into the Israelites. This was the only path for a Gentile to join the covenant people of God.
After the Babylonian exile and a lot of history passed by, tribal and clan affiliations were all but lost. The Jewish religious authorities instituted what we understand as the ritual of conversion. Now, if a Gentile wants to join national Israel and the Jewish people, they must undergo a process supervised by Jewish religious authorities (in modern Orthodox Judaism, it is a group of three Rabbis who form a Beit Din). The men are circumcised and both men and women are “mikvahed” as the final act of conversion. They go down into the water as a Gentile and come up as a Jew. There is no multi-generational “delay” and the individual Gentile who desires to be Jewish can become Jewish and thereafter, they and all of their descendants are considered Jews.
Then Jesus comes. At this point, there are born Jews and there are Jewish converts or proselytes to Judaism. Jesus doesn’t speak against the ritual of the proselytes and does not overturn this institution, even though it is not directly found in the Torah. Remember, Jesus wasn’t adverse to opposing Jewish traditions and he did overturn or object to other halachah of the scribes and Pharisees on occasion (Matthew 15:1-14 for example). We also see that Paul encountered Jewish proselytes (Acts 13:43 for instance) and he too never said a cross word about the Jewish converts or the practice of converting Gentiles to Judaism (though in Galatians, he spoke strongly against Gentiles converting to Judaism as the only way to be justified before God). Both Jesus and Paul were very direct about expressing their thoughts and feelings and if either one had a problem with the Jewish conversion process, they would have said so…but they never did.
But something new happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
–Matthew 28:18-20 (NASB)
I wonder if the Jewish apostles truly understood the implications of Messiah’s words. Did they believe he wanted them to make converts of the Gentiles, “mikvahing” them into Judaism? All of the other streams of Judaism accepted Gentile converts, why should “the Way” be any different?
But it was and is.
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
–Acts 10:44-48 (NASB)
Here we see our answer. Gentile believers, like the Jewish believers, received the Holy Spirit and were baptized by water without being circumcised and converting to Judaism! This was revolutionary. This was astounding. This had never, ever happened before. It was without compare. Paul perceived this vision clearly in his subsequent work with Gentiles, but it wasn’t until the matter was brought before the council of apostles and elders of the Way in Jerusalem that a formal, legal status was granted to the Gentiles entering into a wholly Jewish religious stream (see my Return to Jerusalem series for a detailed analysis of this process).
But it’s at Acts 2 that Pastor and I disagree. He believes that Pentecost is the “Birthday of the Church” and that sometime remarkable happened. Something remarkable did happen, but we don’t agree on exactly what it is. To the best of my ability to relate (and again, I apologize in advance if I mess any of this up), Pastor believes that an entirely new entity, “the Church” emerged from a Jewish religious stream and although it is made up of both Jewish and Gentile members, the members all form a single, uniform body of Messiah. At this point, the Torah is “fulfilled” and is no longer a set of commandments or obligations for the Jewish Christians. Jewish and Gentile Christians share a single set of obligations under the grace of Jesus Christ.
This effectively separates the Jewish members in the Church from larger Israel and the Jewish people. Pastor says that all Jews share in the covenant promises of God, particularly possession of the Land of Israel in perpetuity, but that only the Jewish Christians are saved.
My point of view is different.
I see the creation of the Body of Messiah (I’m not going to call it “the Church” in order to distinguish Pastor’s perspective from mine) as the natural and logical extension of everything that happened in Biblical and historical Judaism before it. The entire stream of history and prophesy for Israel pointed inevitably to the Jewish Messiah, so when Jesus came, it was the pinnacle, the focal point, the historical hinge upon which everything in Judaism was aimed at and upon which it turned.
But while it was revolutionary for Gentiles to be allowed to enter a stream of Judaism without converting to Judaism and being considered Jewish, their admittance wasn’t the end of the Jewish stream that accepted Jesus as Messiah as a Judaism, nor was it replaced by another religion or religious entity. It was a Judaism that had Gentiles admitted as equal members in relation to salvation and access to God, but it didn’t turn “the Way” or “Messianic Judaism” into “the Church.”
That happened unfortunately, after the Jewish/Gentile schism in the movement (and there’s a lot of history available to describe the details, so I won’t replicate it here) and in my opinion, the “Gentile Church” was born when the Gentile Church leadership agreed that it was no longer a Judaism and that Jews were not welcome unless they converted to Christianity!
If Pastor is right, then we have to consider the Jews in the Church as irrevocably separated from their Jewish brothers and sisters and perhaps even national Israel, since they no longer can identify with Israel, the Torah, and the connection the Torah provides a Jew with his nation and his God. If I’m right, then we have to consider the Body of Believers in Messiah as a Jewish stream, albeit a somewhat unique one because of such a large Gentile membership, that runs parallel to all other Jewish religious streams pointing toward the future and the eventual return of the King. We also have to admit that the Torah is not canceled and that Messianic Jews share an equal obligation to the mitzvot as all other Jewish people.
Again, I sincerely apologize to my Pastor and to everyone reading this if I got his perspective on these matters wrong, in even the slightest detail. It is not my intention to misrepresent anyone, but it is my intention to draw a distinction between our two viewpoints.
Does it matter who is right? Is my purpose in the church, let alone the reason for my existence, simply to be right? As I’ve discovered (or re-discovered) recently, the answer is yes and no. No, it doesn’t matter if I personally am right. The world doesn’t depend on my one, small opinion. Statistics vary, but recent research indicates that there are anywhere between one and three-quarter million blogs to perhaps up to 164 million blogs in existence, and even the people compiling these numbers admit the list is incomplete. The number of individual blog posts goes into the billions and billions. Compared to all that, my one little blog can hardly matter, even in the human realm, let alone God’s. Any religious blogger who thinks they’re “all that and a bag of chips” can only make me laugh.
On the other hand, it’s vitally important to examine the question “who is the Church” and especially “what is the Church”. If “the Church” turns out to be a terribly misguided Judaism that has wildly deviated from its original course, then we require an exceptionally radical “course correction.” No, I’m not suggesting a revolution in the Church as such, where we strip away 100% of church culture as it has evolved over the past twenty centuries, but I am suggesting some form of change.
This is exactly the sort of process described by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Founder and President Boaz Michael in his book Tent of David. The answer to the question of who and what “the Church” is has profound implications if we believe that the modern Messianic Jewish opinion is correct and that “the Church” was never intended to be a totally unique religious unit, disconnected forever from Israel, the Torah, and the Jewish people.
In my opinion, everything God did across human history was ultimately additive, no replacements or substitutions accepted. Abraham and God make a covenant, and as part of the conditions of that covenant, Isaac is added, then Jacob is added, then Jacob’s children are added as the patriarchs, and then their descendants, the Children of Israel are added, and they are made into a nation and the Torah is added, and possessing the Land of Israel is added, and all of the prophesies by all of the prophets pointing to the Messiah and the Kingdom of Heaven are added, and the birth of Messiah is added, and the death and resurrection of Messiah are added, and the Jewish religious stream that is identified by faith in Messiah is added, which includes the Gentiles entering this Jewish stream being recipients of the blessings of the covenant God made with Abraham…all in one, nice, neat, straight line across history as drawn on the canvas of time by God.
What we have now in the 21st century is something of a mess, but that’s what happens when God gives us a gift and then lets us play with it for 2,000 years. We’ve bent, folded, spindled, and mutilated it, but not beyond repair. Repair is what I think Messianic Judaism is all about. It’s tikkun olam or repairing the world with a Messianic twist. It’s a voice in the wilderness calling out to the synagogue and the church saying, “It’s time to take a fresh look at all this so we can clean the place up and get ready for the King’s return.”
One nice, neat, straight line from Abraham to Moshiach. Any bends in the road, any wrinkles in the asphalt, any potholes, any mudslides, any detours, have nothing to do with God and His intent. We’re the ones with the jack hammers and sledge hammers pounding away at that line, making it crooked and not straight. But we’re the ones who were charged with caring for the road, just as Adam was charged with caring for the Garden (and look how that one turned out).
I’m not in charge with being “right” but God did say that I’m supposed to take care of my little section of the road upon which the King will walk as he returns. I can’t fix it all, but I have to do something. He’s coming soon. I can’t just lie down on the job and call it good. He’s coming soon. I’ve got to do my best, with the help and by the will and grace of God, to make and keep my little piece of the road of the King straight.
For more about the relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers in the Body of Messiah, see Derek Leman’s short article, Citizens, Not Natives.