The Failing Light

Candle in ObsidianIn some naïve areas of Christian consensus people imagine that Jews obey Torah because they believe that this will save them. However, a simple conversation with the average religious Jew, or reading in books by religious Jews will demonstrate this to be a fantasy. And which of us has not heard the proposition that Judaism is a religion of law and Christianity a religion of grace, with Judaism being pictured as Mount Sinai covered in thunderbolts, and Christianity, the grace of Jesus dying on the cross. People forget, or never seem to get, that it was on that very same Mount Sinai that God revealed himself as “the LORD, the LORD, merciful and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

-Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann
“The Foundational Reason Jews, Including Messianic Jews, Should Obey Torah”

There are times when I think I’m going crazy. No, not hallucinating, voice-hearing, I-need-my-meds crazy, but when the world of Messiah that I see being constructed around me is roundly and soundly contradicted in every detail by people I respect and admire, I feel crazy.

I had the “crazy” experience last night in my weekly meeting with my Pastor. I had several weeks to “get my ducks in a row,” so to speak, to present my side of the story about why Jews remain obligated to Torah, but there’s a difference between walking into your Pastor’s office with half a dozen books in hand plus a bunch of notes, and being a Pastor who has decades of experience interpreting scripture, a Master’s degree in the subject, and someone in a Doctoral program in religious studies.

I’d need about twenty years to catch up and he’d always have the same amount of time to stay ahead of me.

I used to be amazed that I seemed to be able to “hold my own” in our little debates, but last night was proof positive that I’ve definitely been “fighting out of my weight class” all along.

As a “Messianic apologist,” I’m terrible.

But when I read commentaries such as Dr. Dauermann’s or many of the resources produced by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), what they say seems to make so much sense, and they don’t require “retrofitting” the Tanakh (Old Testament) with later interpretations to make the Messianic prophesies work alongside what the Apostolic Scriptures say about Yeshua (Jesus).

They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Yeshua said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham.”

John 8:39

Deeds are a natural response to faith. In fact, one can’t exist without the other. Messiah’s brother knew this all too well.

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.

But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

James 2:14-26 (NASB)

abraham-covenant-starsI see a completely clear line leading from Abraham to his physical son, the only son he had that was promised the inheritance, his son Isaac, and that line extends to Isaac’s son Jacob (but not Esau), and then to Jacob’s offspring, whose descendants are the twelve tribes of Israel, with that line extending out of Egypt, to Sinai, to the Torah, to the Mountain of God, to the Land of Israel, to the Messianic promises, to Messiah.

Unfortunately, I can’t verbally articulate that line and all of its details, at least not convincingly. Sure, I can write and write and write, but as you can see, over a thousand blog posts later, I’m still writing, I’m still exploring. I’m still trying to understand.

But I still can’t explain why it seems so simple and so reasonable and so Biblical that Jewish people, past, present, and future, and yes, Jewish people in Messiah, are obligated to observe the mitzvot, not as a condition of salvation, but because of the continual stream of ratified covenants God made with Israel and only Israel (name a covenant God made that wasn’t with Israel) and as a definition of the relationship Jewish people have with each other, with the Land of Israel, and with God.

The LORD appeared to Isaac just as He had appeared to Abraham. He told him, “I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham” (Genesis 26:3). He restated the promise to multiply his descendants, to give them the land and to bless all nations through them “because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws” (Genesis 26:5). Isaac was inheriting the Abrahamic blessing because Abraham had merited God’s favor.

How did Abraham keep God’s charge, commandments, statutes and laws? The commandments of God’s Torah—His divine law—had not been given yet. Did Abraham know all the laws of the Torah given through Moses at Mount Sinai? If not, how could he be said to have kept them?

Rashi claims that this means Abraham kept the entire Torah and the oral traditional law of Judaism. That seems like a stretch, but what does it really mean? What laws did Abraham keep?

-from “Abraham’s Torah”
Commentary on Torah Portion Toldot

The Torah and the Prophets never really talk about salvation the way the New Testament does, so it’s hard to make comparisons. People like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Joshua didn’t seem to worry or fret over their own salvation or the personal salvation of others. They worried about listening to God, and obeying God, and encouraging others to obey God, lest they become disobedient and as a consequence, die physically (their ultimate spiritual fate was never discussed).

So how can I compare the importance of obedience as we see in the case of Abraham above, when we have to deal with Paul?

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.

Romans 3:21-30 (NASB)

practicing_faithFaith has to be the common currency for salvation, otherwise non-Jews could never be justified before God without converting to Judaism and observing the entire Torah. Faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness, and so it is with us, but then why does God commend Abraham, not for his faith, but for obeying God and keeping his “commandments, statutes, and laws?” (Genesis 26:5). In fact, in verse 3 of the same chapter, God says that it’s because of Abraham’s obedience that he re-established this promise with Isaac to multiply Abraham’s descendants, to give those descendants the Land of Israel, and “bless all nations through them.” It’s because of Abraham’s faith and obedience to God’s commandments, statues, and laws that we, the people of the nations, are blessed through Abraham’s seed, that is, Messiah.

I don’t want to quote from too much of Dr. Dauermann’s article, but commenting on the siege of Jerusalem by Babylon recorded in Jeremiah 35, he says:

What point is the Holy One Blessed be He making here? Just this: that the Jewish people have failed to show to Him the honor and respect due him. While the Rechabites show honor to their father Jonadab by obeying his rulings, the people of Israel dishonor God by not obeying his Torah.

And THAT is the reason we as a people, and as a movement, should be far more concerned with Torah living—because we honor God when we do so, and we dishonor him when we do not.

This very closely mirrors something the Master said to his disciples and his critics among the Jewish people:

Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:19 (NASB)

Jewish people, and especially Jewish teachers, who annul (fail to obey or disregard) the least of the commandments of God (Torah), will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven, the Messianic Age. But those who keep and teach the commandments, statutes, and laws of the Torah will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. A Jew annulling the Torah is dishonoring God and as a result, will be least, but a Jew who keeps the Law and teaches other Jews to do so, is honoring God and as a result, will be great.

If this makes so much sense to me, why can’t I communicate that convincingly to someone else? Really, I’m not making all this up, it’s in the Bible. If the primary matrix with which you interact with God is your intellect, and your primary tool for doing so is the Bible, shouldn’t you at least consider the possibility that this explanation has merit, even if it conflicts with your current tradition of Biblical interpretation?


smallI’m ranting. It’s been a frustrating week. I have to keep reminding myself that no matter what happens to me, if I get tossed out on my ear into the street tomorrow, it won’t affect God or His promises to Jewish Israel in the slightest. The fate of the world doesn’t rest on my shoulders.

So why am I here? Why do I matter? Do I matter?

In principle, the Bible seems to say so, but in the face of an infinite God, I always feel so terribly small and insignificant.

After reading some commentaries written by Christian blogger Tim Challies about MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference, I posted this on Facebook and Google+:

I was just thinking of MacArthur and his “Strange Fire” conference again (reading a Fundamentalist blogger my Pastor recommended). It occurred to me that MacArthur would no doubt view the Messianic movement as “strange fire” as well. I got to thinking that if MacArthur were aware of my existence, he might “come after” me, too. Then I realized I’m just small potatoes and I would be totally beneath his notice. I also realized in the same moment that I am never beneath God’s notice. What an odd situation. I can be too small to be noticed by a big-time famous Christian Pastor but I’m never too small to escape the notice of God.

In the 1994 film True Lies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, the character Simon, played by Bill Paxton, delivers this line when he erroneously thinks he’s going to be killed by Schwarzenegger’s character:

Oh God, no, please don’t kill me. I’m not a spy. I’m nothing. I’m navel lint!

Compared to all the Christian Pastors, and Christian bloggers, and Christian theological instructors, a guy like me “on the ground,” just praying, and studying, and worshiping day by day is pretty much “navel lint.” Compared to an infinite and cosmic God, I absolutely am “navel lint,” and actually, far, far less.

So why am I here? Why do I matter? Do I matter?

Why do I feel like God expects something out of me and that I have some sort of job to do…and if I fail, it won’t be a good thing…it will matter if I fail?

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.

-Edith Wharton, American writer

I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know that Israel was called to be a light to the nations by God (Israel 42:6). I know that Jesus, as Messiah, the firstborn son of Israel said he was the light of the world (nations) (John 8:12), and he said that his disciples (presumably including all future disciples such as me) are the light of the world (nations) (Matthew 5:14). If all that is true and it filters down to the level of the individual, that is to say, me, then I’m supposed to be a light to the world around me.

As Edith Wharton rather aptly states, I can be a candle or a mirror. I guess either will do. The worst thing that can happen is that I can go dark, either because I’ve been blown out or I’ve been shattered into tiny pieces.

walking-into-churchFortunately, Messiah’s light can never go out, and his light isn’t dependent on me. In the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-12), five let their lamps go out, so I guess it’s not impossible for my light to fail as well, at least while it’s in my charge.

But if I have failed, then what use am I? Of the billions of “second chances” God has already given me, does He have one more, or is it all over?

I don’t know. I guess all I can do is keep showing up until I find out one way or another.

19 thoughts on “The Failing Light”

  1. Kind of. I heard of the movie. Something about a simple act can trigger a large set of reactions resulting in a big, but unpredictable response.

  2. James,

    I have a nagging question from this post and previous ones about your encounters with Pastor. I still am not sure how to frame it or even if I’m seeing it correctly, but bear with me. I have no idea how this will come out…

    Is it possible that presenting a (modified?) bilateral ecclesiology, you open the door for Pastor to ‘pick and choose’ what he will follow and thereby justify others (or him for them) picking and choosing? Is it possible that by presenting two groups it only plays into his ‘works v grace’ division, thus he wants to push everyone away from works and toward grace (Like they can be separated..)?

    I can’t fully put my thumb on what is teasing my mind… and has been, but it seems to be rooted in trying to make a case for ‘partial Gentile’ connection with differences in requirements (the only one of which I see is circumcision).

    Maybe a different way to approach is to better define ‘Jews’ and ‘Israel.’ I do not see the terms as synonymous, though I know you usually use them that way. If he has Reformed influences (as in Calving/Luther, etc, though being Baptist, they’ be blunted) he likely sees them as separate which may be a significant miscommunication… as you well know, define terms and then define terms!

    Still, the nagging thing is BE presenting a stumbling block that neither of you have recognized.

    Personally, I would relish that weekly debate… But I’ve walked in his moccasins and may be better armed… LOL!!

    Keep up the battle! Shalom.

  3. “but then why does God commend Abraham, not for his faith, but for obeying God and keeping his “commandments, statutes, and laws?” (Genesis 26:5)”

    Perhaps it’s because God has a plan, that will not be thwarted. (But I would argue that it was Abrahams TRUST that triggered it, since his behavior could not be performed without first believing He exists and will do the right thing.)

    Perhaps, even our best educated guess, (both Jewish and Christian) is only that, a guess and we don’t have all the pieces. We do, however, have enough to see He is trustworthy. So, when Jews do life as He commands them, there is a reason we may not fully see until later. But the easy answer is when Jews are living their identity, they testify to the reality of their God, and the trustworthiness of His Word.

    I believe that just as Esau despised his birthright, we Christians have despised ours as well. Meaning, we have a beautiful mission to accomplish as Gentile believers, but are distracted by either 1) denying Jewish distinction by insisting they quit being Jewish, or 2) denying Jewish distinction by trying to apply it to ourselves.

  4. @Pete: Pastor is intelligent, well-educated, and well-read, as well as well-traveled. He’s a veritable fountain of historical and theological information and I’ve learned quite a lot from him. I think our conversations would be much smoother if I just listened to him relate topics in his various areas of expertise to me. He’s opened up an entire world about what Christianity, and especially Fundamentalism and Reformed theology, is like. I apologize to him and to you if I’ve given any negative impression of him. I’m mainly taking myself to task in this blog post, not him.

    @Ruth: Yes, you and I speak the same language and we’re on the same wavelength. The many churches in our world, not so much. That’s the point of “Tent of David,” to try and communicate to churches on that wavelength. Your mileage may vary.

  5. Jim,

    If you really need someone in the Messianic camp who really has his Theology down and all the credentials to go with it, take a look at my friends on Facebook and look for Ashley Crane. He has his PHD and is the President of Harvest West Bible College in Australia. But he came to Christ in Israel, and was a Messianic Rabbi in Long Island and a couple of other places (thirty years ago). He still associates with and promotes Messianic Judaism.

    Not sure if this is helpful, but it might be good to know that there are people out there who have the education and experience, and who are very familiar with both worlds. I’m just trying to be helpful. Besides, you two might become good friends. God Bless!

  6. Perhaps we are using Greek methodology, i.e., logic, arguments, appeal to reason, to attempt to convince a person to act according to a Hebraic worldview. Does anyone see the incongruity here? I can read articles about fine wines or I can taste them. Get this guy to a tasting.

    So, rather than waste so much time with, “Messianic or torah apologetics,” we need to demonstrate the beauty of torah. Has pastor ever been invited to celebrate the moed? Read any Heschel or any of the authors from Jewish Lights Publications? Listened to Jonathan Settel, Ofra Haza…I get the idea he has sophisticated tastes.

    I’ve got to admit I get stuck in Greek Zone whether I am aware of it or not as this is how we grew up.

  7. Actually, he lived in Israel for fifteen years and has visited semi-frequently since. He’s very familiar with Messianic and non-Messianic Jews in Israel and has a depth of knowledge from living in Jewish Israel that I can only imagine. Nevertheless, his point of view remains firmly planted in fundamentalist Christian soil, even though he has “drank deeply of the wine of Yisra’el,” so to speak.

    1. But has he drunk deeply of the wine of torah? It is one thing to argue a philosophy or doctrine; it is another thing to experience it and decide if it is spiritually meaningful or not.

    2. Y’know, James, you’ve got me curious now about your Pastor and his 15+ years of experience in Israel. Was he among the Southern Baptist Convention contingent here? In what city did he live? I was familiar with some of these folks 25-30 years ago, and they even allowed Messianic Jewish groups to use their “Baptist Village” property for conferences and some other events. Nonetheless, for all their sympathy, there were rather few among them who shared the vision of Messianic Judaism. And there is still even today a conflict among Jewish messianists in Israel between those who affiliate doctrinally with the Christian missionary legacy (effectively Jewish Christians) and those whose affinities lie with Judaism and traditional Jewish praxis despite common reference to “messianic Jewish” terminology. The theology that each perspective supports is actually an overlay upon more basic views. In one of your recent topics you cited Rabbi Stuart Dauermann’s core principles that characterize Jewish messianism. They illustrate a perspective that is rather different from what your Pastor appears to hold. I suppose one could likewise formulate a list comparable to Rabbi Dauermann’s that instead expresses common generalities of traditional Christian perspective which is inimical to characteristically Jewish messianism. But perhaps what we are really addressing here could be viewed as a spiritual warfare between principalities and powers, wherein the weapons of our warfare include steadfastness and a sound mind.

  8. I hear what chaya is saying. I find Christians to be a strange brew of ‘rational irrationality’ when it comes to defending ‘Christianity as-it-is’. They are often rational in terms of the systematic theology they defend but irrational in their defense of it. Therefore, when we speak rationally to them, like someone in trauma or discomfort, they do not or cannot apprehend what we are saying due to the emotions associated with their situation. And the Western vs. Hebraic mindset does not help matters. One can work in a deli without becoming a bagel and one can live around Jewish people without understanding them or their manner of approach to HaShem. You are often likely working in an operating system that is transmit-only from your side, no offense to you pastor intended. He sounds like a good man doing what he knows best, but is dysfunctional in terms of his capacity to see without bias… keep up the good work. We must be ‘glacial’ in our movement, grinding things to dust over time. We must be marathoners, it seems, more than sprinters… 🙂

  9. Chaya: I said “wine of Yisra’el,” not “Torah.” I believe he has a sincere love for the Land of Israel and the Jewish people, but that love doesn’t change his outlook on what he believes the Bible is saying.

    PL: My Pastor was a missionary and a tour guide. I believe he lived in or near Jerusalem, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t know for sure. I’ve been deliberate and not revealing his full name, the name of the church I attend, and so forth. I think he was aware of Messianic Judaism but I don’t think he was actually a part of any Messianic community.

    Dan: Pastor is highly rational, but paradigm shifts aren’t always part of a rational process. They’re more like a leap of faith. He says that if anyone can show him in the Bible where it says “such and thus,” and it can’t be contested, he’ll believe it. I can show him in the Bible (which is what I’ve been writing about a lot lately) how Torah obligation is continued for the Jewish people, but it can always be contested from a traditional, Protestant interpretive framework.

    We must be marathoners, it seems, more than sprinters…

    I just hope the track hasn’t turned into quicksand.

  10. “He says that if anyone can show him in the Bible where it says “such and thus,” and it can’t be contested, he’ll believe it.”

    It’s strange because this mindset is exactly what (eventually) gave me the conviction that RT, in all of its forms, must be rejected. For if God was going to annul the covenant with Israel /Jews, and /or “fulfill” Torah in such a way as to render it void, and “wrong” for them to adhere to, then He most certainly would have stated this loudly and clearly.

    Yet He never does.

    Are we to believe He tricked His chosen people? He is NOT a capricious God! Why would He use language such as “for all time” or “for all your generations” and it’s “an everlasting” covenant and decree? He could have (and I argue WOULD have) stated that it would come to an end, instead He and Yeshua said the opposite.

    Why do we admire Daniel so much? Because even when he was outside of the land, and could have all kinds of excuses to ignore the Torah, he remained faithful!

    The monumental issues that prevent a paradigm change from an educated Christian is 1) thinking the long held traditions somehow make a teaching true and 2) lack of humility regarding the Jewish people. Adopting your paradigm change would require him to place Israel/Jews in a lead position instead of the Church. Too much to swallow for most.

  11. Are we to believe He tricked His chosen people? He is NOT a capricious God!

    That was one of my arguments. I admit God is Sovereign and can do as He wills, but He is also infinitely just. Sure, sometimes His justice is difficult to understand, but I don’t think a “bait-and-switch” maneuver constitutes God’s justice and certainly not His mercy.

  12. Steve, “Butterfly Effect,” was a strange and interesting movie, sort of a more emotionally gruesome, “Donny Darko.” We have both films, but I don’t think I could ever bring myself to watch them again.

    James, that was what I meant, that he hasn’t experienced torah. It seems like it is a doctrine to him and not something living. Perhaps you have reached the limits of Greek rationality, and if we look at scripture, did anyone decide to follow the Holy One of Israel based upon arguments? I am guessing he knows Hebrew, so that might be helpful. Have you thought of doing a parsha study together? I really love the one from The Rabbi’s Son, as it is very detailed and insightful, albeit long.

  13. Chaya, I appreciate the suggestions, but in the almost year I’ve been acquainted with Pastor and have been participating in these meetings, I’ve gotten to know how he thinks to a certain degree. It isn’t a matter of changing “tactics” at this point. I think you hit upon it when you said “he hasn’t experienced Torah.” Such an experience isn’t arrived at through an intellectual process. It’s rather like faith and an encounter with God. One immerses in Torah, not just reads and studies it.

    Interestingly enough, he does have a concept of a “Heavenly Torah,” the perfect Word of God, untouched and unaltered by human beings. The problem with that concept is what God said through Moses in Parashat Nitzavim:

    Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

    Deuteronomy 30:11-14

    God is telling the Israelites that the Torah isn’t in some unattainable spot such as Heaven or under the sea, but it has been given to them and is not considered to arcane or too difficult to observe. While human beings have struggled with making copies of copies of copies and with different translations and variations, this should still not create a barrier between a Jewish person and their responsibilities to God. What God gives is perfect. True, when humans acquire God’s gifts, we tend to make a mess of them. What we do will never be perfect. What and how we understand isn’t perfect, either.

    But it’s not just what we do, what we think, and what we understand, but the devotion to God that we express every time we reach out to Him by reading the Bible, by praying, through worship, and yes, whenever we attempt an act of obedience.

  14. I understand your frustration in trying to communicate what seems obvious to you, but I just want to say, as I think I commented once before, that your blog has really helped me personally to think through these issues and something happened in my heart when I read one of your posts on faith where I was able to see for the first time that of course Jews should continue in Torak observance. I have been brought up in a fairly fundamentalist charismatic church background and I have always heard it said that Jews believe in attaining salvation through works. It was honestly primarily through reading your blog that I realised it was about faith all along and that for a Jew to continue observing Torah would not contradict salvation by faith. So although you may feel like a small voice, keep writing and exploring, because that voice has been a help to me personally. and I’m sure to many others who don’t want a deep analysis from a theologian but the thoughts and expressions that come from a childlike heart of faith.

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