At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico.
–Acts 5:12 (NASB)
In this third sermon on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship teacher D. Thomas Lancaster expands on why the writer of the Book of Hebrews constructed this word of exhortation to the letter’s recipients and further identifies them as Jewish disciples of Messiah living in or around Jerusalem sometime in the early 60s CE (common era).
Where did the first Christians go to church?
This is how Lancaster started his sermon. He says the question is nonsensical because the first Christians were actually Jews. They didn’t go to church because the modern concept of “church” didn’t exist. Neither did the modern concept of “Christianity.” The first Christians were Jews and they practiced Judaism. As you saw in the quote at the top of the page, the first Jewish believers commonly met in an area on the east side of the Temple called Solomon’s Colonnade.
Lancaster speculates that, because of the prophesy in Zechariah, saying the Messiah would descend upon the Mount of Olives and enter the Temple through the eastern gate, the disciples met there in anticipation, since the Mount of Olives was plainly visible from Solomon’s Colonnade.
Then Lancaster diverted his sermon, taking the audience back in time twenty years or so, recalling a conversation he had with his Father who had been a Baptist minister. Somehow, they got to talking about the Book of Hebrews and his Father, remember, this was twenty years ago, twenty years before Lancaster thought of producing this sermon series on Hebrews, commented on Hebrews 13:22:
But I urge you, brethren, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly.
Thirteen chapters is hardly brief and in fact, Hebrews is one of the longest epistles in the New Testament. Lancaster’s father suggested that Hebrews was originally written in two parts: a longer sermon intended to be delivered to a Jewish audience and a shorter letter accompanying the sermon as an explanation.
That’s pretty much was Lancaster suggested in last week’s sermon.
Lancaster’s father said something else rather interesting. He said he thought that Hebrews was written to a group of believing Jews who had been kicked out of the Temple and who didn’t know what to do next. This was a group of Jews who, if they renounced Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah, would be allowed to return to the Temple. Hebrews then, was a letter and a word of consolation to those Jews to not give up their faith but to hold fast to their devotion to Messiah.
Traditional Christian teaching about the Book of Hebrews states that the epistle was a warning to believing Jews to not “backslide” into Judaism and return to Temple worship, so the senior Lancaster’s suggestion was the exact opposite of how most of the Church understands the meaning of Hebrews.
But Lancaster’s Dad’s interpretation has several advantages, according to the younger Lancaster:
- It doesn’t anachronistically require a fully-developed Christian identity that is separated from the normative Judaisms of the mid-first century CE.
- It doesn’t require that Jesus abolish the Torah or the Levitical system.
- It better explains the arguments within Hebrews (which will be covered in subsequent sermons).
- It fits much better with what we know about the early Jewish believers and their relationship with the Temple.
The Early Jewish Believers and the Temple
This part of the sermon fits within the realm of established fact as we see in the scriptures and doesn’t require any speculation. It does require setting aside traditional Christian doctrine about the early “Jewish Christians” and taking the scriptural text, primarily in Acts, at face value.
Lancaster covered those portions of the Gospels that demonstrated Jesus’ devotion to the Temple, his first recorded appearance there as a boy to debate the scholars, evicting the moneychangers, calling the Temple “my Father’s house,” and so on. You can listen to the recording to get the details, including how Jesus, when he returns, will rebuild the Temple and reinstitute the Temple services.
After the ascension, the disciples returned to the Temple. They may have received the Spirit while praying at the Temple (Acts2). Acts 2:46 mentions their presence at the Temple. Acts 3:1-3 speaks of the disciples participating in prayer services at the Temple. And Acts 5:42 asserts that the disciples were in the Temple daily teaching and preaching of the Messiah.
It is strongly believed in normative Christianity that the disciples must have given up the Temple sacrifices since Jesus fulfilled them all, and yet Acts also speaks of many Priests in the Temple coming to faith in Messiah because of the devotion of the disciples. According to Lancaster, these Priests didn’t give up their jobs and stop administering the sacrifices, but rather, found greater meaning in their Priestly duties, seeing Messiah’s blood in each of their services.
In fact, the only occasions on which the disciples were accused of speaking against the Temple, were when they were accused by false witnesses. The trial of Stephen before the Sanhedrin is an example, and Stephen took a full chapter in Acts to deny and refute the false accusations.
Lancaster also points out that the Bible never, ever says that the disciples stopped offering the sacrifices. This would have been a big deal and if it were so, you’d think Luke would have mentioned it. It’s assumed by most Christians that the Jewish disciples stopped offering Temple sacrifices based on doctrines that were much later established by the Christian church, not because it says so in the Bible.
If we look at Acts 24:17 and the surrounding text, we can see how, thirty years later after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of the Master, Paul was encouraged to offer sacrifices at the Temple to show many other believing Jews that the accusations stating Paul was teaching against Torah and against the Temple were utterly false.
Maybe you can accuse Paul of vainly clinging to obsolete Jewish customs by offering sacrifices but what about James, brother to Jesus, steward of the Throne of David, head of the apostolic community? If anyone should have known the truth about the teachings of Jesus, it should have been James. If Jesus had taught against the Temple and abolished the sacrifices, James should have known about it and advocated for that position. Obviously, he didn’t.
A plain reading of the relevant passages, without being filtered through Christian anti-Torah, anti-Jewish, anti-Temple bias reveals this. Except as viewed through the heavily-colored filter of Christian tradition, there’s nothing in the Bible that says the Torah, including the Temple sacrifices, were ever to be abolished. If you want more information about this, watch the First Fruits of Zion television episode The Torah is Not Canceled. It’s only thirty minutes long and well worth your time.
History records the death of James the Just, the brother of Messiah, the leader of the Council of Apostles and head of the entire body of believers, as happening in 62 CE. Lancaster dates the Book of Hebrews at just a few years later. According to Lancaster, this was also about the time issues came to a head between the disciples in Jerusalem and their arch foes, the Essenes, the group of corrupt Rome-collaborators who illegally had control of the Temple. The Essenes wanted the disciples out of the Temple and wanted them to renounce their faith in Jesus as Messiah.
This next part can’t be firmly established through scripture or historical texts and is extrapolated from Lancaster’s understanding of the content in Hebrews. He believes that after the death of James, the Essenes held their own Sanhedrin, leaving out the Pharisees, and forbade the Jewish believers from Temple participation, cutting them off (“Koret”) until such time as they renounced Yeshua.
The Master even predicted this would happen in John 16:2. And this was the purpose of the sermon and letter of Hebrews: to encourage and support the Jewish believers in Jerusalem who had been removed forcefully from Temple participation to keep the faith, keep faith in Yeshua, and not to break faith, even for the sake of returning to the Temple.
Yes, Temple devotion was appropriate and desired. Every year during the pilgrim festivals thousands upon thousands of Jews from all over ancient Palestine and the diaspora nations would converge on Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple in obedience to the commandments.
But devotion to Moshiach and devotion to the Temple were not to be considered mutually exclusive and the writer of Hebrews was earnestly imploring the Jews in Jerusalem to not forsake Messiah in the face of being removed from the Temple.
For even if removed, and even after the Temple was destroyed, it has been promised in Messianic Days that the Temple will be rebuilt and Jews as well as many, many people from all the nations will go up to the Mountain of the Lord and the House of the God of Jacob and worship Him there in Jerusalem.
What Did I Learn?
Well, again, quite a lot. I was wondering how Lancaster was going to firm up his suppositions from last week and I admit he did a pretty good job of it in this sermon. His point kind of wavers when he suggests last week that the disciples were Greek speaking Jews and this week they seemed more likely to be Jews who were native to the Land, but I suppose it could go either way, or even involve a more general population of Jewish believers.
I’m certainly getting a very different picture of the Book of Hebrews than I imagined, and indeed, one more consistent with my understanding of the over all message of the “good news” to the Jewish people.
At the very end of this sermon, Lancaster said he was finally finished setting up the required background and that in next week’s sermon, we’ll begin to actually study the Epistle to the Hebrews. I know that I’ve been turning some of the more difficult passages of this part of scripture over in my head and wondering how they can be seen as consistent with the overarching message Lancaster is presenting. Can all of the book of Hebrews, even the “pesky” parts, really be interpreted as an encouragement for believing Jews in Jerusalem to keep the faith in Messiah, even though denied access to the Temple, which both they and the Master revered? In my next review, we’ll begin to discover the answer.
Edit: Where it says above that the “Essenes” were involved in the death of James and in opposition to the believing Jews in Jerusalem, it should read “Sadducees”. I apparently misunderstood what was said on the recording and apologize for the error.