What do Maimonides and the book of Hebrews have in common? Find out how the Talmud and the book of Hebrews intersect when it comes to the question of faith in Messiah. The book of Hebrews continues with a call to hold fast to faith in the coming of the Messiah.
References Hebrews 10:32-39; Isaiah 30:18; Habakkuk 2:3-4.
Therefore the Lord longs to be gracious to you,
And therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
How blessed are all those who long for Him.
–Isaiah 30:18 (NASB)
Lancaster’s sermon took a different route this week, the long way around to Hebrews 10:32-39 through the above-referenced prophets, the Talmudic writings, and Mosheh ben Maimon otherwise known as Moses Maimonides or the Rambam.
Lancaster states that the above verse from the prophet Isaiah is very important as a Messianic prophesy. The Talmud interprets “How blessed are all those who long for Him” or “wait for Him” as those among the righteous waiting for the redemption of the Messiah.
Verse 20 says “your Teacher will no longer hide Himself, but your eyes will behold your Teacher,” indicating that our Teacher, that is, Messiah, is currently hidden from us (or from Isaiah’s audience, the Jewish people) but that in the coming age, he will be revealed. Verse 21 continues “Your ears will hear a word behind you, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ whenever you turn to the right or to the left,” speaking of walking in the Holy Spirit (the “word behind you”).
But when it says “therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you,” this isn’t speaking of Messiah, but of Hashem, of the God of Israel, for He waits for the Messiah, too…at least according to the Talmud.
Why would God have to wait? You’ll see in a bit.
Lancaster then shifted gears and started quoting from Tractate Sanhedrin about a 3rd century CE Rabbi who came across a Gentile who had discovered a scroll in the Roman treasury. Without going into all the details, the scroll seemed to likely have been looted from Jerusalem by the Romans, perhaps from the Temple itself.
The Rabbi, who believed the scroll to be an authentic Jewish Holy writing, purchased the scroll and discovered it predicted the end of the world and the coming of the Messiah in the year 4291 from Creation, with the final renewal of the world being accomplished in the year 7000.
The Talmud uses this story to issue a stern warning against attempting to calculate the dates related to Messiah coming and an admonition against those who insist on calculating such dates. Thus far, everyone who has attempted to predict the return (or coming) of Messiah has been wrong.
This is where Habakkuk comes in:
I will stand on my guard post
And station myself on the rampart;
And I will keep watch to see what He will speak to me,
And how I may reply when I am reproved.
Then the Lord answered me and said,
“Record the vision
And inscribe it on tablets,
That the one who reads it may run.
“For the vision is yet for the appointed time;
It hastens toward the goal and it will not fail.
Though it tarries, wait for it;
For it will certainly come, it will not delay.
“Behold, as for the proud one,
His soul is not right within him;
But the righteous will live by his faith.”
Within the context of Habakkuk, this does not seem to have anything to do with Messiah. Habakkuk had just heard from God that the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem was at hand because of their many sins. Habakkuk was upset, not that God had ordered the destruction, but that He had chosen an instrument for that destruction much more evil than Judah and Jerusalem. So he sat in a guard post and waited (probably for a long time) for God to answer his objection.
That said, the Talmudic sages interpret, especially verses 3 and 4, as very much having a Messianic application, and Lancaster agrees, specifically since the Talmud interprets this portion of scripture as stating the date of Messiah’s coming is hidden. I won’t go into the nuts and bolts of Lancaster’s explanation. The link to the recording is at the top of this missive so you can listen to the forty minute sermon for yourself.
But then we get back to why is even God waiting for Messiah? Why should God wait? Why not send Messiah now?
The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
–2 Peter 3:9
God’s justice (and I believe mercy as well) demands that He wait because those of us who also wait receive a blessing by the merit of the act of waiting, for as it says “Though he tarries, wait for it” (the Hebrew pronoun can also be “him”), and again, “the righteous will live by faith”, and as it says in Isaiah, “Blessed are all those who wait for Him” (Isaiah 30:18 NKJV).
Many have been born, lived, and died waiting for Messiah and he didn’t come, yet their waiting wasn’t in vain, for by the merit of their faith, they gained eternal life in the resurrection.
I mentioned the Rambam above. He codified what is known as The Thirteen Principles of Faith, the twelfth of which states:
I believe with a complete faith in the coming of Messiah, and even though he may delay, nevertheless every day I believe that he will come.
This is also known as Ani Ma’amin (I believe) and is traditionally sung at the conclusion of the Shacharit or Morning prayers. The Talmud states that such a lived faith in the coming of the Messiah equals performing all of the 613 commandments (and the version we have today was also organized by Rambam). Yes, it’s that important.
However, when Habakkuk says that “the righteous will live by faith,” he doesn’t just mean that they live a life of faith, but that they will merit life, eternal life in the resurrection, by clinging to their faith in the coming redemption of Messiah. This is an essential principle in Judaism, according to Lancaster, and not only do we see it in the prophets and the Talmud (and Hebrews), but the Apostle Paul referenced it in Romans 1 and Galatians 3. Instead of trying to figure out when Messiah will come (return) and only expecting him then, always expect him today and every day; always live a life of daily expectancy.
Then Lancaster (apparently) switches tracks and talks about how the passage from Habakkuk is very different in the Greek. Why is that important? Because Jewish teachers used the Greek translation of the Tanakh (Old Testament) or Septuagint, when teaching Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles. The writer of Hebrews was addressing Greek-speaking Jews living in or near Jerusalem.
For yet in a very little while,
He who is coming will come, and will not delay.
But My righteous one shall live by faith;
And if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.
–Hebrews 10:37-38 quoting Habakkuk 2:3-4
Especially the last line seems quite odd: And if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.” Lancaster says this speaks of one who shrinks back or loses his faith, specifically in the coming of Messiah, for if one loses his faith in Messiah, he loses God’s favor.
But “My righteous one shall live by faith” in that even if Messiah does not come when expected or even in your lifetime or mine, we must live by faith so that we will live in the resurrection and not lose our place in the world to come. We must seek first the Kingdom as our focus.
Now (finally) Lancaster turns to Hebrews 10:32-39.
He gives a very brief summary of the Hebrews epistle, an exhortation to Jewish believers who because of their faith in Messiah, have been denied access to the Temple and the Priesthood, and who, for that reason, are strongly tempted to renounce their Messianic faith. The Hebrews writer is encouraging them to remain faithful because they always have access to the Heavenly Temple and Priesthood through Messiah as High Priest, and warning them of the consequences of losing faith.
“But remember in former days” is a reference to the early persecutions (read the beginning chapters of Luke’s Book of Acts including the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8) and the “murderous threats” of Saul (the beginning of Acts 9). They were persecuted in many ways and yet “accepted joyfully” those hardships, enduring in the faith. “Therefore, do not throw away your confidence” for in doing so, they would also throw away their reward. They needed to endure as they did before.
Hebrews then quotes the Greek version of Habakkuk, and you should see at this point how well it fits the flow of this part of the letter, and concludes (well, not really…it just concludes the artificial division of chapters):
But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.
But there’s more. I didn’t expect Lancaster to cover Chapter 11 as well, but when he did, it clicked right into place:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval.
This is the so-called “faith chapter” of the Apostolic Scriptures and Christians often cite it as a “stand alone” definition of what “faith” is, without considering how it fits into the overall message of the epistle.
The writer of the epistle has been encouraging his readers to maintain their faith in the Messiah’s coming, to not abandon that faith, even under the tremendous pressure of not being able to offer korban in obedience to the commandments, for in renouncing Messiah, they would also be renouncing their reward in the Kingdom.
The rest of chapter 11 is a list of examples of people of faith who maintained that faith even though they never saw the promised rewards in their lifetimes. Abraham was promised the Land but died never receiving the promise. So too did Isaac and Jacob. Read the chapter for yourself and see what it looks like now that you have the context Lancaster constructed around it.
Lancaster concludes his sermon by reading verses 32 through 40, but I’ll just quote a portion:
And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
“And what more shall I say? For time will fail me…” The list of the faithful is endless, or seemingly so. It’s not like the writer of Hebrews is asking for the impossible, as if no one who came before ever exhibited such a faith, maintaining it even to the death. While modern religious Judaism doesn’t emphasize the Messiah’s coming all that much, in ancient days, the days of the prophets, the days of the apostles, and the days of the writers of the Talmud, it was much clearer that faith in the coming (return) of Messiah was the lynchpin of Jewish faith in God and the coming New Covenant times.
What Did I Learn?
I’ll never be a Talmud scholar, so all of the tie-ins from Talmud back into scripture are a revelation to me. Lancaster said that the writer of Hebrews and the other apostles read Habakkuk exactly the same way as the sages of the Talmud. This is a very important point because it re-enforces my emphasis that you cannot know or understand having faith in the Messiah unless you study Judaism! This is why I study from within a Messianic Jewish framework.
I hate to slam Christian studies and teachings because I have high regard for those people I know in the Church, but traditional Christian doctrine compared to Messianic Jewish (and other Jewish) studies is like the difference between an eighty-year old frayed black and white still photo and the latest vibrantly colored 3D motion picture in surround sound.
I hope I’m not overstating the metaphor, but a lot of these teachings in Messianic Judaism hit me like someone opened up my skull and poured in a couple of quarts of “Ah Ha! That’s what that means!”
I was also pleasantly surprised when Lancaster mentioned having read the biography of Brother Yun, an evangelist in Communist China who suffered terribly for his faith. I also read the book at the urging of a friend, and as a reminder that I can get tremendously caught up in the “head knowledge” of the Bible at the expense of a living faith in Messiah.
The message of the epistle to the Hebrews is also a message to us nearly two-thousand years later. The Jewish believers reading this letter had a faith in the return of the Messiah who had died, was resurrected, and ascended to Heaven about thirty years prior, within the living memory of a generation, and yet they were tempted to abandon that faith. We have possession of the same faith almost twenty-centuries after the event, and no one alive on earth is a direct witness today. If they were tempted living so close in time to the flesh and blood Jesus, how much more so will we be tempted, especially in a culture of atheism, humanism, and progressiveness, to be lured into abandoning our faith in the return of Messiah?
Which is why we can’t. Which is why Hebrews 11 is so important to us as an example of living and dying and yet not receiving the promise of his return.
For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
If some of the Jews in Paul’s generation not coming to faith in Messiah is compared to death, but their coming to faith is compared to the resurrection. So it is with us. For those who have never come to faith and possibly never will, we can have pity, but we must mourn tragically for those who once had faith and deliberately set it aside for whatever they thought was better, perhaps under some form of social pressure to do so.
I mourn for those every day and I know more than one. Pray that they haven’t shut up their ears permanently, and that they will go from being “cast away” by their own decision, to “acceptance” once again and “life from the dead.”