Coming to the 18th chapter of Acts, I’ve entitled this particular message, “From Judaism to Jesus.” The story of the book of Acts has proven to us to be a study in transitions. I want to belabor the point for a moment, because I think it’s important for you to understand that.
The book of Acts, written by Luke, describing the early years of the church after its beginning, is really a book of transitions. It’s a book of beginnings. In a sense, it’s the genesis of the New Covenant. It’s all of the beginnings as the church begins to find itself and form itself and sever itself from Judaism. It was particularly a time of transition for the Jews of the early church. The old things of Judaism faded out very slowly, slowly, and the new gradually phased in.
The writer of the book of Hebrews gives us the theology of the transition, or the theology of the change from Judaism to Jesus. He very clearly lays it out. He says, for example, that Moses and David and Joshua and Aaron and all of the priests and all of those great characters of Judaism have all been replaced, as it were, by Jesus. He goes beyond that, and he says that the laws and the ceremonies and the rituals and the patterns of the Old Testament have given way to a whole grace kind of life. No longer are you ruled by externals but you’re ruled by the Spirit within.
God’s people, Israel, have given way to God’s people, the church. The system of multiple sacrifices has given way to the one final sacrifice. All the way through Hebrews, as we studied it some months ago, we saw the tremendous viewpoint of the New Covenant as it means the old is set aside. The writer of the book of Hebrews even says, “The old decays and fades away.”
“From Judaism to Jesus, Part 1: Paul in Transition”
Commentary on Acts 18:18-23, January 13, 1974
As Borowsky has already said, Christian scholars, educational organizations, and other groups are already changing their own assumptions which previously provided for the continuation of supersessionism and attempting to pass down their knowledge to the church. But how well is that knowledge being passed down to the families who worship in their churches every Sunday?
The answer is, not very well. This may not be the fault of church leaders and scholars but of the individual Christian. Human nature tends to lead us on the path of least resistance in whatever activities we may find ourselves, including how we understand God and the Bible. While believers may go to church diligently, attend Sunday school classes, participate in mid-week Bible studies and the like, most won’t “go the extra mile” and actively pursue the latest research in New Testament studies, fresh understanding of Scripture, and become involved in interfaith activities. Most people get to a certain level in their lives, whether it is in marriage, at work, or in their faith, and then they’ll plateau and just stay there.
“Origin of Supersessionism in the Church:
Part 4: “Leaving Supersessionism Behind”
Messiah Journal, December 2012/Issue 112
First Fruits of Zion
When I wrote, “This may not be the fault of church leaders and scholars but of the individual Christian,” perhaps I should have clarified that this can include the individual Christian Pastors and teachers, particularly those who either don’t keep up with the latest developments in Biblical scholarship or who choose to discard them in favor of centuries old Christian tradition.
I’ve been encouraged to take a look at some of the sermons of various Christian Pastors including John MacArthur. But where to start? In terms of MacArthur’s recorded messages, at the Grace to You website, if you go to the Sermons page, you’ll see a list of sermons that goes all the way back to 1969. Assuming that MacArthur’s messages were recorded for every Sunday spanning from 1969 to today, that’s a lot of material. How should I choose something representative?
I decided to do a search on a topic that is of particular interest to me. What is John MacArthur’s opinion of Messianic Judaism?
I don’t know. The search didn’t turn up any sermons that specific, but I did come across a three-part series called “From Judaism to Jesus.”
The title alone is provocative because it full-out states that Judaism has nothing to do with the Jewish Messiah, as if Judaism and the Messiah are mutually exclusive terms. That seems not only inaccurate but a little crazy. The Jewish people from ancient days have been longing for the coming of the Messiah as the savior and deliverer of Israel, as the King of the Jewish nation, and as the Monarch who would place Israel at the head of all the nations and inaugurate an age of world-wide peace.
So how could there be a “transition” from Judaism to Jesus as if Jesus was an entirely new and unanticipated “thing” in the plan of God?
According to John MacArthur, Jesus replaced Judaism. This is classic supersessionism, also known as fulfillment theology and replacement theology. I’ve been assured that MacArthur is not anti-Semitic, but I don’t know what else to call someone who advocates a theology that in part has resulted in every persecution and pogrom that has ever victimized the Jewish people, culminating in the worst of all atrocities, the Holocaust.
In part one of MacArthur’s sermon series, he invokes the Epistle to the Hebrews to support his position. The primary reason I’m reviewing D. Thomas Lancaster’s sermon series Holy Epistle to the Hebrews is to see an alternate interpretation of this book of the New Testament, one that more accurately portrays the intent of the anonymous author toward his Jewish audience and that flows more evenly with the letters of Paul, which I believe also have been misunderstood, and which I believe, when correctly interpreted, offer messages of hope and good news to the Jewish people and to the normative Judaisms of his day (and for Judaism today) and only then also offer good news to the people of the nations as well.
MacArthur and other supersessionists like him, have put the cart before the horse and say that Paul, as well as the writer of the Book of Hebrews, offered “good news” to the Gentiles that grace had replaced the Law, and that if the Jews wanted a piece of it, they had to dismantle Judaism and leave its broken pieces behind them in the dirt, boarding the train to Heaven with Jesus in their new identities as goyishe Christians.
Finally, I want to acknowledge the victims of certain interpretations of Paul’s voice, especially those who have suffered the Shoah. Their suffering cannot be separated from the prejudices resulting from those interpretations any more than it can be wholly attributed to them. To them I dedicate the effort represented in this book.
-Mark D. Nanos
from the Acknowledgments, pg ix
The Irony of Galatians: Paul’s Letter in First-Century Context
You may remember this quote from my blog post Prologue to the Irony of Galatians. The traditional view of Paul and the mainstream historical interpretation of the message of the New Testament may seem totally benign and all but unquestionable to the Church, both across time and in the present, but the damage it has done to collective Jewry over the last twenty centuries has been incalculable.
Of course, men like MacArthur would counter that consequence aside, if how he preaches the “good news” is an accurate interpretation of the scriptures, he can only tell the truth of the Word of God. He can’t help how it’s been misused.
But he fails to ask himself the question (and frankly, I understand why) if he and the Church’s traditions and “ritual” interpretations of scripture are accurate. After all, these traditional interpretations of the Bible are based on the earliest writings of the “Church fathers” in the first few centuries of the common era, who unswervingly sought to distance the newly minted Gentile Christian “Church” from anything related to Jewish people, Judaism, and the Jewish nation that had been razed by the Romans and left wandering the diaspora without King, Temple, or Priesthood.
The basic understanding of the writings of the Epistles has changed only somewhat for many Christians since the time of the Church fathers and the later Councils such as Nicaea, and for many Protestants, the core of Biblical interpretation has changed hardly at all in the five hundred years since the Reformation.
In the last part of my “Origin of Supersessionism in the Church” series for Messiah Journal, I wrote an optimistic message of how the Church was leaving behind this dark set of chapters from its past. Shocked out of apathy by Shoah, Christianity was seeking a way to reconcile with the Jewish people, and even in some cases, embracing the Jewish Roots of the faith. But that optimism may have been misplaced. I wrote it long before I read John MacArthur’s opinion on what Judaism means to Christianity today:
It was ordained of God. It’s a way of life, a point of pride, a divine institution, and it doesn’t die easily. We see that even today. Jewish people who come to Jesus Christ, if they’ve been involved in any depth of Judaism, and certainly Orthodox Judaism or Conservative Judaism in some cases, they become Christians, but it’s very difficult for them to break with all of those traditions. They very often hang on to those things.
Dr. Feinberg himself expressed to me that this is one of the tragedies or one of the problems the church has to deal with, and that is allowing the Jews to become a full part of the body of Christ. Very often, they themselves resist that. The statistics are staggering when you think that in LA there are multiple tens of thousands of Jewish believers and a few hundred of them are involved in local churches.
So it’s very difficult for the transition from Judaism to Jesus. The church needs to do everything it can to stretch out its arms of love to incorporate them in every way and at the same time allow those old institutions to die out.
It amazes me that MacArthur, in the same breath, can complain about how most believing Jews don’t join the local church and also make “from Judaism to Jesus” the key phrase of his diatribe.
Am I being too harsh in calling MacArthur’s sermon a diatribe, “a forceful and bitter verbal attack against someone or something”? Maybe. I don’t think (I’m trying to be fair) that MacArthur meant to attack the Jewish people in general and Jewish believers in particular, but imagine how all this sounds to Jewish people.
How does this sound?
In the character of the book of Acts, the church is born, and Judaism in God’s eyes is a dead issue…
I personally know Jewish people who are deeply involved in religious and cultural Judaism who are also disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah and not only do they not see Judaism and faith in Moshiach as mutually exclusive, they see their devotion to the Messiah as the logical and ultimate extension of their Jewish faith and Jewish identity.
John MacArthur would take that all away and replace it with a pale shadow of the richness of a Jew kneeling before the King of Israel in homage, devotion, and in celebration that Messiah, Son of David, has come and will one day return to restore all that has been lost, bringing the world to perfection in the coming Messianic Age.
It’s funny, because MacArthur saw this vision as well, he simply rejected it out of hand.
It indicates the difficulty in his mind of seeing Christianity as a unit all its own composed of Jew and Gentile, but rather, they saw it as an extension of Judaism. It’s understandable, right, because Jesus was their Messiah? He was the fulfillment of Judaism.
MacArthur couldn’t have mapped out his theology more openly (and notice that he said Jesus was – past tense – the Jewish Messiah, not is). Instead of seeing Biblical history extending forward across the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings into the Apostolic scriptures and up through history to today, an extension of the original promises of God to Israel culminated in Messiah, he sees a total break in Biblical prophesy. The “extension” shatters at the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, and by the time Luke records the Acts of the Apostles, those promises have reformed into an entirely new and unanticipated entity. Jews are absorbed into the new thing called “the Church” where Jews and Gentiles are rendered as a completely homogenous mass, something like mixing the different ingredients for “Wonder Bread” into a bowl and baking it up in an oven. Once it’s fully baked, take out the loaf, slice it up, and each piece is pretty much like any other piece…
…anonymous and nutritionally deficient. Everything important has been bleached out.
You have to remember, then, that there was flux in the book of Acts, and that many of these Jewish people who are coming to Christ are finding it hard to get all the way over to the features of Christianity. Not only because of the strength of Judaism but watch this— Secondly, because all of the features of Christianity hadn’t been revealed yet. They really didn’t know what to substitute for it.
Christianity is a substitute for Judaism or rather, a replacement. As the missus would say, “Oy!”
In fact, the Romans considered Christianity a sect of Judaism. As they stood apart and looked at it, they just figured it’s a sect of Judaism. That’s how tightly tied it was.
I apologize, but there’s only one response to that last quote: Oh, duh!
To give you an idea of how entrenched he (the apostle Paul) was in Judaism, Galatians 1:13. He says, “You heard of my manner of life in time past in Judaism. Beyond measure I persecuted the church and wasted it. I profited in the Jews’ religion above many of my equals in my own nation. More exceedingly zealous in the traditions of my fathers.” He says, “I was a Jew in every sense, even beyond the normal pattern of my fellows.”
Philippians 3:5. “Circumcised the eighth day of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, touching the law, a Pharisee.” He was a superlegalist. “Concerning zeal, persecuting the church. Touching the righteousness which is in the law blameless.” He carried through every little nitpicking iota of the ceremonial legalist system. He was a Jew at the limit of Judaism’s capacities.
Yet he became a Christian. When he became a Christian, you can’t make a change even though the man’s heart was changed, and he was a new creation, the transformation of his person took time. I’ve always said, “You take a person with a rotten temper and a stinking disposition and get him saved, and you’ve got a Christian with a rotten temper and a stinking disposition.”
MacArthur says that Paul was “entrenched” in Jewish tradition, but in reading MacArthur’s sermon, it’s more than abundantly clear that his own entrenchment in Christian interpretive tradition has blinded him to what the Bible is actually saying. MacArthur’s shooting all around the target but even after decades, he’s still missing it.
In the quote above, MacArthur unfavorably compares Judaism to having “a rotten temper and a stinking disposition.” He had to know how this would sound. I guess his audience didn’t mind. I know I would have, though. In fact, I do mind it right now.
So what am I supposed to learn from reading the sermons of Christian Pastors? What am I supposed to learn from reading John MacArthur’s sermons? Granted, he delivered this sermon over forty years ago, but based on his more recent sermons and commentaries, I have no reason to believe he’s changed his viewpoints on Jews and Judaism one bit.
If I’m being offered a choice between MacArthur’s version of Christianity and a more Judaic and Messianic perspective, based on part one of “From Judaism to Jesus,” I know which direction to go in.
Addendum: In his sermon, MacArthur said that by Acts 2, God considered Judaism to be a dead issue. I just read that in 1942, Adolf Hitler said something quite similar and planned to create “a Museum of Judaism, to remember the dead Jewish religion, culture and people.” Go to the small article at Aish.com and find out how Hitler’s intent completely backfired and ended up “as a living testimony to the indestructibility of the Jewish people.” I think that speaks to Christian assumptions about the “death” of Judaism as well.
For more, go to Part 2 of my review.