Tag Archives: Abraham

How Is The World Blessed By The Offspring of Abraham?

I was sitting in the airport in Dallas reading my daily page of the Talmud when an elderly priest, readily identifiable by his collar, stopped by my seat and asked me a question. “I hope you don’t mind my interrupting you. I see you are reading a Hebrew book and you are wearing a hat. Are you by any chance a Rabbi?”

When I responded that indeed I am, he continued, “I hope you don’t think I’m out of place but all my life I’ve been hoping that someday I might meet a Rabbi. You see, although I’m a priest I’ve always felt that Jews are the people of The Book and enjoy an especially close relationship with God. You are God’s chosen people and as a Rabbi you are one of their spiritual leaders. I’ve always wanted to ask a Rabbi for a blessing. Would it be possible now for me to ask that you honor me with that favor?”

I cannot convey in words how moved I was by that request. I gave him the priestly benediction from the Torah and recited it to him in the original Hebrew. He was moved to tears. In all humility, I understood that for him I was the link to the original Torah. Whatever theological beliefs might separate us – and there are surely many – he clearly recognized the unique role of Judaism, in the words of Isaiah, to serve as “a light unto the nations.” Jews are the direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the nation that stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and received the Torah to transmit from generation to generation. Jews were “chosen” not to claim superiority but to accept the responsibility to convey God’s messages to the rest of mankind.

-Rabbi Benjamin Blech
“5 Greatest Gifts of Being a Jew”
Aish.com

birchas-kohanimThere may be some of you when reading the paragraphs above who will be taken aback by a Catholic Priest (or any Christian clergy) asking a Rabbi for a blessing. There may be others among you who will cringe at the idea that Rabbi Blech not only responded to the request by conferring a blessing, but that he used the Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing.

Historically, Judaism and Christianity have had a somewhat “uncomfortable” relationship (I say that using tremendous understatement) and at least vestiges of that remain in the modern era.

But I found the transaction between R. Blech and the Priest to be rather heartwarming. Nearly twenty centuries of enmity between Christians and Jews was simply swept aside, a Christian (a Catholic Priest no less) openly recognized the special and unique relationship a Jew has with God, and a Jew (a Rabbi no less) blessed not just a Goy, and not just a Christian, but a Catholic Priest, and was happy to do so.

In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.

Genesis 22:18 (NASB)

Indeed, the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are to be a blessing to the people of the nations, and in R. Blech’s case, it became both fact and truth.

But then again, we have this:

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ.

Galatians 3:16

From a Christian point of view, that blessing from the offspring (“seed”) of Abraham could be considered specifically issuing from one Jew, our Rav Yeshua (Jesus), as opposed to Jewish people in general. However, I don’t have a problem assigning multiple meanings and applications to the aforementioned blessing.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Drilling down into R. Blech’s quote, let’s take a look at the following:

Whatever theological beliefs might separate us – and there are surely many – he clearly recognized the unique role of Judaism, in the words of Isaiah, to serve as “a light unto the nations.” (emph mine)

A Catholic Priest, who, by definition, believes that Jesus Christ is the Jewish Messiah King who will redeem the world, also recognized that modern Jewish people, including and especially Rabbis, have a unique role to play relative to God and to humanity.

How much more should we “Judaicly-aware” disciples of our Rav also recognize that unique role of Jews in general and Jews who share our understanding of the revelation of Rav Yeshua in particular, whether we choose to call ourselves members of Hebrew Roots, “Messianic Gentiles,” or anything else?

In his article, R. Blech listed the 5 greatest gifts of being a Jew as:

  1. Our Unique Mission
  2. The Torah
  3. Progress
  4. Optimism
  5. The Gift of Others

Although the Torah does not apply to the rest of mankind, even the Gentile disciples of our Rav, in the same way it applies to Jewish people, it does define a general pattern of ethical and moral behavior along with the establishment of monotheism, the realization of One God, Hashem, Creator of Existence. Without the Jewish people and the Torah, there would not be such revelations, and certainly, there would be no plan of redemption for our world.

JerusalemUnder “Progress,” R. Blech cites Irishman Thomas Cahill’s book The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels to illustrate the impact of Jews and Judaism on the entire planet.

In it he credits the Jews not only for monotheism and the idea of a personal relationship with God; it is these concepts, he reminds us, that led us to the understanding that we have a personal responsibility for ourselves and our relations with our neighbors, as well as to our respect for history itself.

While the Church likes to think history began with the birth of Christ, in fact, while the coming of Rav Yeshua certainly was and is an apex in human history, everything in the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings had to occur to set the stage for our Rav’s entry, including the existence of Israel and the Jewish people.

Under “Optimism,” Blech states:

To be a Jew is to know that the world has not yet reached its divinely ordained end. God has a plan for us and eventually it will be fulfilled. No matter how long it takes, Jews remain the eternal optimists.

Golda Meir put it this way: “Jews cannot afford the luxury of pessimism.” Ben Gurion reminded us that in Israel “In order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” And Maimonides included the belief in messianic redemption at the end of days as one of the thirteen Cardinal principles of our faith.

jerusalem dayWe non-Jewish devotees also wait for the Messiah, though some of us have a radically different idea of what that means than most Jews. Social media has made it easy to complain about practically everything, and conservative Christians complain about everything from A to Z, which is why it would be helpful if we would learn optimism as Blech describes it.

Finally, under “The Gift of Others,” while R. Blech is describing the relationship Jews have with each other, we “Judaicly-aware” Goyim might want to set aside any “Torah-envy” we may experience ,and approach our Jewish brethren in Yeshua (as well as Jewish people in general) in the same manner as the Priest who approached Rabbi Blech in a Dallas airport as described at the top of this article.

At the very start of his write-up, R. Blech said:

Albert Einstein once startled an audience when he announced, “I’m sorry I was born a Jew.” The people were shocked. How could this great man make such an outlandish statement? With a smile, Einstein then impishly continued, “Because it deprived me of the privilege of choosing to be a Jew.”

As a tenth generation Rabbi, I did not choose to become a Jew; it was my natural birthright. But with the wisdom of age and the perspective of worldly experience I have come to recognize that my identity conferred precious divine gifts that we should never take for granted.

MessiahJews, whether religious or secular, are the only people who are born into a covenant relationship with God. The rest of us have to choose to become associated with God and arguably, we have no covenant relationship (long story…start reading this five-part review for the answer, or if you’re pressed for time, this short summary) apart from the Noahide Covenant God made with all living things in Genesis 9.

But we are allowed and even encouraged to choose God. We just need to remember that it was through the Jewish people, the nation of Israel, and the (Jewish) Moshiach that we are redeemed, not through the power of our choosing alone.

“You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.”

John 4:22

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We Are Students of Abraham Communing with God

We find that G-d’s love for our father Avraham was mainly because “…he will command (yetzaveh) his children and his household.”[1] Yetzaveh here connotes “bring into a communion (with G-d).” All of Avraham’s towering avoda in the tests to which he was subjected,[2] cannot be compared to his commanding others and bringing them into communion, i.e. to his bringing merit to others.

“Today’s Day” for Sunday, Tammuz 8, 5703/1943
Compiled and arranged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, in 5703 (1943) from the talks and letters of the sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory.
Chabad.org

This is a follow up to yesterday’s morning meditation, and although it, and my previous missive, may seem a bit schmaltzy for some of you, I feel it’s necessary to add some spiritual “ascent” to counter balance some of the “descent” we’ve been discussing lately.

I know that the phrase from Genesis 18:19 where God references Abraham saying “so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice,” has been taken by some to mean that, as spiritual children of Abraham, we should be obligated to the Torah mitzvot in the same manner as the descendants of Abraham’s offspring Isaac and Jacob, that is, the Jewish people.

This would make things deceptively easy (not that they’d actually be easy) in terms of defining the role of the non-Jew within Messianic Jewish space. We’d just have the same role as the Jewish participants and thus we’d all be one big, happy family (not really, but that’s wish, anyway).

But the commentary about the aforementioned portion of scripture is very interesting. It states “…he will command (yetzaveh) his children and his household,” as meaning he [Abraham] will “bring [his children and his household] into a communion (with G-d).”

Except, because of our Abraham-like faith in Hashem through Yeshua, we can and are brought into communion with God. Having a halachic path identical to the Jewish people is completely unnecessary. How complicated does coming into communion with God have to be?

abrahams visitorsAlthough the Jewish Sages believe that Abraham kept all of the Torah mitzvot in the manner later commanded at Sinai, I don’t think we have to go that far in considering what Abraham may have taught, based on a reading of the plain meaning of the relevant texts.

At a very, very basic level, Abraham talked to God and God talked back. Their relationship was founded on Abraham’s unbounded trust in God, a trust that allowed Abraham to do the unthinkable; to trust God enough to place Isaac on the altar and risk losing his “child of promise.”

While I think most of us as parents have a terrifically difficult time imagining how Abraham was able to do this and what he was thinking (not to mention what Isaac was thinking when he allowed it) at the Akedah, we have to believe that Abraham trusted God and His promises enough to know that Isaac would not die or that, if he did, God would resurrect him.

After all, if Isaac was the sole source of Abraham’s future legacy, how could that be fulfilled if Isaac died, particularly by his father’s hand, before having children?

So to be in communion with God, to follow Abraham’s teachings may be as straightforward as continually talking with God and continually developing our trust in God so that we too may face our life difficulties with the same calm and grace as Avinu Avraham.

A lot of the issues we discuss among ourselves as “Messianics” have to do with how Jews and Gentiles are supposed to interact, particularly within a Jewish social and worship environment, but the question we seem to avoid is how are each of us as individuals (regardless of being Jewish or Gentile) supposed to relate to God?

Abraham and the starsIf following Abraham’s teaching for both his biological descendants and those of us who are counted as children of Abraham by our trust in God is the key, then the door we’re trying to open is the one that leads us into the presence of Hashem.

G‑d desires to have a presence in this world, and in each mitzvah we do, however it is done, He is there.

G‑d desires that His light shine in this world, and in every word of divine wisdom and every heartfelt prayer, His light shines.

G‑d desires yet more—that He be found here in all His essence, that which can neither be spoken nor kept silent, neither of heaven nor of earth, neither of being nor of not-being—that which transcends all of these and from which all extends.

And that is how He is found in a simple, physical deed that shines brightly with divine light.

Torat Menachem, vol. 34 (Likkutei Sichot, vol. 4), Parshat Korach; Maamar Hasam Ragleinu 5718.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Acts of Light”
Chabad.org

Everything we do in the service of God brings a little bit more of His presence into our reality. That’s the meaning of Tikkun Olam or repairing the world.

In that, anything we do to elevate ourselves spiritually, and that delivers charitable, righteous, and just acts to our fellow human beings, is part of bringing light into the world and are the behaviors that result from our communion with God.

We are students of Abraham it seems, Jew and Gentile alike. We all just have our own unique ways of acting out what we’ve learned.

Touching on the Keb’ Mo’ YouTube video of his chart “I’m Amazing” which I posted yesterday, I’m inserting this link to Rabbi Freeman’s short article You Are the World (and so am I).

I encourage you to read it all (it’s not very long), but he ends his missive by saying:

As another ancient Jewish teaching goes, “Every person has to say, ‘The whole world was created with me in mind.’” Meaning, for me to tip the scales. For me to make the entire world the way it was meant to be.

Because you are the world.

Inner lightWhether you understand it or not, you (and I) were created to fulfill a specific purpose in life (and maybe more than one). As you are doing it, you may not even be aware of what or how you are part of God’s plan in the world. You may only realize it in the world to come when it is revealed.

Half the time, I have no idea what God wants out of me, either.

That’s where trust in God, the kind of trust Abraham had at the Akedah, comes in. We have to believe and live out our trust that the universe and our individual lives are unfolding as God intends them to.

Good Shabbos.

Footnotes

1. Bereishit 18:19.

2. Pirkei Avot 5:3.

Relative Righteousness

‘This is the story of Noah. Noah was in his generations a man righteous and wholehearted.’

What is the implication of ‘his generations’? Rabbi Yochanan said, “Only in his generations, but not in others.”

Reish Lakish said, “If in his generations, then certainly in other generations.”

-Tractate Sanhedrin 108a

Rabbi Yochanan acted in accordance with the noble precept “judge every person positively.” If the text lends itself to both laudatory and pejorative readings, then certainly a man described by the Torah as ‘a man righteous and wholehearted’ should be given the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, the Torah itself deprecates Noah for not having tried to influence others, in contrast to our father Abraham, about whom the Torah testifies ‘and the souls they had acquired (lit., “had made”) in Charan.’ The Rabbis explain: “He (Abraham) brought them under the wings of the Holy Presence, Abraham converting the men and Sarah the women. The Torah reckons this as if they had made them” (Tractate Sanhedrin 99b). Except for his immediate family, Noah “made” not a single soul and seemed uninterested in the fate of contemporary humanity.

-Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel
Chapter 1: A Tzaddik in His Generations, p.95
Translated by Kadish Goldberg
Jews, Judaism, & Genesis: Living in His Image According to the Torah

I’ve read this criticism before. There’s more than a hint of “superiority” in attributing higher or better motives to Abraham, the first Hebrew, than to Noah who was a Gentile, at least on the surface. Of course, if Rabbi Yochanan is correct, then Noah really did forsake even the attempt to inspire anyone in his generation besides his family to repent of their sins and thus be saved of the coming destruction of the flood.

On the other hand, how can Reish Lakish possibly be right, since there is evidence showing that Abraham but not Noah had disciples who were devoted to the One God?

If, however, we assume that the leader is forged by his generation, the picture is reversed. Noah’s stature surpasses that of Abraham. Abraham functioned in a society amenable to moral improvement, wherein one could “make souls.” Noah lived in a totally corrupt society, yet remained unblemished by its immoral influences.

-Amiel, p.96

This doesn’t tell us if Noah tried to save anyone, but it does suggest that he would have universally failed, given the abject corrupt nature of the society around him.

All this is conjecture, of course, but have you ever wondered if the world we live in today is more like Noah’s or Abraham’s?

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be.”

Matthew 24:36-39 (NASB)

We can see that Jesus (Yeshua) is drawing a comparison between the days of Noah and the days of Messiah’s eventual return. In both cases, the general public didn’t have a clue that their time had come and that a revolutionary act of God was imminent. People will still be carrying on “business as usual” right up until the end.

stained glass jesusBut we can’t necessarily extend the comparison to include relative levels of corruption. After all, in the current age, people do respond to Christian missionary efforts and become disciples of Jesus and even some Jews and Gentiles have come to the realization of the revelation of the Jewish Messiah as the Jewish Messiah rather than the Goyishe King, if you’ll pardon my making a distinction.

Beyond the presumed difference in behavior in Noah and Abraham that Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish represent, there’s the idea that God will continue to offer redemption should a generation be open to it, and withdraw that option should that generation be totally cold to God. Does God ever give up on an entire people group?

As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.”

It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying,

“To your descendants I have given this land,
From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite.”

Genesis 15:15-21

Although God promises the Land of Canaan as a permanent inheritance to Abraham’s descendants, they would not be allowed to take possession of that Land until the current inhabitants had become so corrupt that they were (presumably) unable to be redeemed. This seems to indicate some sort of spiritual or moral “cut off point,” a state that once entered into can never be reversed.

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.”

Exodus 32:7-10

It seems like Israel had crossed that “line in the sand” or at least was standing right on top of it. If Moses hadn’t pleaded with God for Israel (Exodus 32:11-14), then the inheritors of the Land would only have come from the tribe of Levi, that is, the descendants of Moses.

That last point is debatable however, and God could have been testing Moses the way He tested Abraham at the Akedah (Gen. 22:1–19).

The famous “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:18-20) as Christianity calls it, was Messiah’s directive to his Jewish Apostles to do what had never been done before; make disciples of the people of the nations without requiring them to undergo the proselyte rite and convert to Judaism. It may have been (and I’m extending the previously mentioned midrash about Noah and Abraham) that like the people of Noah’s generation, the Gentiles were considered unable to be redeemed unless they converted and joined Israel and Jewish people “lock, stock, and barrel,” so to speak. If a Gentile were permitted entry into the ekklesia of Messiah and to remain a Gentile, was such a thing even possible?

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.

Acts 15:1-2

Peter's visionMany Jews didn’t seem to think so, not because they were mean-spirited or had anything against Gentiles as such, but because it seemed like a spiritual and covenantal impossibility. Even Peter, if he hadn’t experienced his vision (Acts 10:9-16),would never have understood that it was possible for Gentiles to be redeemed.

And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.

Acts 10:28

See? The vision was a metaphor, not a literal reality. It was never about food. It was about people.

Opening his mouth, Peter said:

“I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.”

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.

Acts 10:34-35, 44-46

Obviously, those late Second Temple period Jews who thought Gentiles could not be brought to God on equal terms and yet remain Gentiles were wrong, but it took a lot of convincing. In fact, Luke’s Book of Acts and many of Paul’s epistles testify to how eagerly thousands upon thousands of Gentiles accepted the discipleship of Yeshua upon themselves, receiving the Spirit and the promise of the resurrection.

But what about we believers today? Oh yes, Christians sometimes go door-to-door passing out religious tracts, send missionaries to far away lands to preach the word of the Gospel, and otherwise proselytize the people around them, but do we ever give up on individuals or, Heaven forbid, entire groups of people?

For Easter one year, the church where I first became a believer many years ago, created a video project. They went to Portland and deliberately approached people who seemed extraordinarily (from these Christians’ point of view) unlikely to accept Christ or even to know much about him. The people they captured on video tape seemed to be what I believe were/are called punk rockers, people, with spiked, multi-colored hair and a proliferation of body piercings; people who didn’t look at all like the “clean-cut” Christians from that church in Boise, Idaho, who typically were socially and politically conservative, and most of whom were educated professionals.

When we screened some of the raw video prior to editing, a lot of people around me in the audience were laughing and making fun of the answers the “subjects” gave in response to the Christian interviewer’s questions about Jesus and Easter.

I was disgusted.

If that had happened today, I certainly would have spoken up, but way back then, I was considered what is called a “baby Christian,” someone new to the faith. I had very little experience as a Christian and didn’t know how or even if this was to be considered normal for a believer. All I knew was that a year from that point, none of the people in that Church would know if anyone they had spoken to in Portland might have made a confession of faith and become a brother or sister in Christ. They’d just written these folks off. More’s the pity.

Who are we? Are we worthy to be called by His Name?

Well, no one is worthy, but by our behavior, by our attitude toward individuals or entire groups or “types” of people, do be sanctify or desecrate the Name of God?

unworthyI can’t tell you about Noah’s righteousness relative to Abraham’s with any certainty, or for that matter, in relation to Moses, but I can tell you that the next time you see another believer operating with a “holier than thou” attitude (or the next time you operate with that attitude), chances are, the second you started making fun of someone else or denigrating them for some flaw or problem they possess, you ceased to have any claim to any righteousness you thought you had.

…as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one…

Romans 3:10

So what’s the cure for this sickness of self-righteousness?

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent…each of you…”

Acts 2:37-38

Peter said other things, but I’m assuming that it is as believers we need to repent of how we judge others, not as those who still need to be baptized by the merit of Moshiach. But then again, if we are capable of acts of cruelty or even just indifference to whole populations of people because they don’t look, talk, or act like us, maybe we are not really disciples of the Master at all.

“And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.'”

Matthew 7:23

Vayeira: Those Whom God Has Blessed

abrahams visitorsThe Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.

Genesis 18:1 (JPS Tanakh)

The Lord took note of Sarah as He had promised, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken. Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken. Abraham gave his newborn son, whom Sarah had borne him, the name of Isaac. And when his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God had commanded him.

Genesis 21:1-4 (JPS Tanakh)

In this week’s Torah portion, Avraham is recovering from Bris Mila. Later, Isaac is born and has a Bris Mila. So, I thought to share a few insights on … Bris Mila!

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayeira
Aish.com

The vast majority of people in the Church don’t imagine that baby boys born into Christian families must receive a ritual circumcision, called a Bris or Brit Milah, on the eighth day of life. It’s one of those things that we think of as uniquely “Jewish.”

But if we who are in the body of Christ are called the spiritual Sons of Abraham (Romans 9:8), and if we are “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all,” (Ephesians 4:4-6), then why are we too not obligated to be circumcised?

Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. It was because of a revelation that I went up; and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain. But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage.

Galatians 2:1-4 (NASB)

Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

Acts 16:1-3 (NASB)

A great deal has been made about why Paul did not have Titus circumcised but he did so for Timothy. The only obvious difference between them in scripture is that Timothy’s mother was Jewish but both parents of Titus were Greek (presumably, since Luke refers to Titus as “a Greek” in Acts 16).

Brit_MilahToday, it is common in the various streams of Judaism to consider anyone Jewish who was born of a Jewish mother, regardless of whether or not the father was Jewish. In the days of Paul, this may not have necessarily been the case, but if Timothy wasn’t Jewish, we are at a loss as to why Paul made such a distinction between he and Titus.

But getting back to what I was saying before, should any distinction be made between Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ. Aren’t we all one in Messiah with ethnic differences swept away by the hand of God as a scorching sirocco sweeps over the desert sands?

But wait a second.

The Almighty commanded Abraham, “… My covenant you shall keep — you and your descendants after you for all generations. This is my covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your descendants after you — circumcise all males. And you shall circumcise the flesh of the foreskin and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And at eight days old every male shall be circumcised throughout all of your generations … My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:9-13).

-Rabbi Packouz

This is the “ethnic” part of God’s covenant with Abraham and his physical descendants through Isaac, Jacob, the Children of Israel, and beyond. I previously said that in this portion of the covenant ratified by God with Abraham…

God promises to make Abraham a father of many nations and of many descendants and the land of Canaan as well as other parts of Middle East will go to his descendants. God declares that circumcision is to be the sign of the covenant for Abraham and all his male descendants and that this will be an eternal covenant.

But the blessings of the earlier portion of the Abrahamic covenant God makes with Abram are significant because that portion can be applied outside the ethnic, genetic, biological stream of Abraham and his offspring.

And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Genesis 12:3 (NASB)

We have to access Paul’s midrash on Abraham to make better sense of this.

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.

Galatians 3:16-17 (NASB)

infant-jesus-templeThe “seed” is Messiah, Christ. He is the blessing, and this promise and blessing was established before the covenant was ratified and God required circumcision of Abraham and his offspring through Isaac, and through Jacob, and through all of Jacob’s offspring, and so on across the ethnic linkage that ultimately becomes the Jewish people.

In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul is strongly discouraging the Gentile disciples from being circumcised because, by that point in history, circumcision was the “shorthand” expression for ritual conversion to Judaism. If the Gentiles, through the blessings of Abraham’s seed (singular) and faith in Messiah, were already justified before God, and received the one Spirit, just as the Jews received that same Spirit, then for the purposes of justification, nothing else is required of the Gentile disciples.

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1-6 (NASB)

One body, one Spirit, one justification, one salvation, a unity of Spirit still doesn’t have to mean a uniformity of identity.

There’s a saying that goes, “everyone’s unique but no one is special,” but I don’t know if I can buy into that. I’m all for equal access to job opportunities and equal pay for equal work, but God did some really unique things. He chose the ethnic Jewish people, that is, those who were physically descended from Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Jacob’s sons, and the children of Jacob’s sons, who were all of the people led by Moses to Mount Horeb in the Sinai to receive the covenant and ultimately all of the promises, including the Land of Israel.

We can discuss the “mixed multitude” who eventually assimilated into the tribes after several generations and disappeared from the face of history, a process that cannot be anachronistically applied to modern times or even the time of James, Peter, and Paul. We can discuss ritual conversion to Judaism which existed in the time of James, Peter, and Paul and which exists today. I agree that you can’t “convert” to a tribal affiliation (which is why the ancient “gerim” in Torah were not converts). Judaism has long allowed for a few, select outsiders to join them, not because of ancestry, but by choice. But then, one choses to go “all the way,” so to speak, not retaining Gentile identity while living as a Jew. If we accept that God granted the Jewish community the authority to establish legally binding customs since antiquity, then we can accept Jewish converts.

But according to Paul and ultimately the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), circumcision (conversion) is not required of the Gentile disciples of Messiah. We are one in Spirit and “co-inhabit” the body of Messiah. The body of Messiah is like the human body, which has different organs and structures, all of which are required for a healthy living person, and just like the body of Messiah, actually requires different parts.

abraham1All of this was set into motion thousands of years ago with Abraham and it is a blessing that the whole world isn’t required to convert to Judaism in order to be reconciled to God. No stream of Judaism I’m aware of requires conversion and circumcision in order to be right with God. The Bible and God have always presupposed a world made up of Jews and Gentiles who are reconciled before our Creator. Messianic Judaism is the living example of a Judaism that recognizes the spiritual equality of Jews and Gentiles in Messiah without compelling circumcision and full Torah observance upon the Gentiles in the body (not that we can’t take on board more of the mitzvot voluntarily).

I know this won’t satisfy the Hebrew Roots Gentiles who believe in uniformity in the Messianic body, nor the traditional Christians who also require uniformity. But those alternatives either rob the uniqueness God gave to the Jewish people through circumcision, the Torah, and Israel by having Gentiles say “it belongs to us too,” or strips that uniqueness away, defying God’s will by Christians telling Jewish people they must cease their ethnic and religious uniqueness and performance of the mitzvot if they wish to worship Moshiach, requiring that Jewish believers live like the Gentiles in the Church.

Why has this mitzvah survived in strength while so many other mitzvot have fallen to the wayside by otherwise minimally observant Jews? Perhaps the answer is found in the 2,000 year old words of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, “Every mitzvah that they (the Jewish people) accepted upon themselves with joy … they still perform with joy.” (Talmud, Shabbos 130a). Deep in our collective psyche we know that the Jewish people is eternal, that we have a mission to be a “Light Unto the Nations” and to perfect the world, that the Almighty loves us and watches over us — and that it is our great joy and privilege to be a part of that Covenant!

-Rabbi Packouz

However you choose to view this in terms of being Gentile members of the body of Christ, the creation of “the Church” didn’t eliminate the promises God made to Israel. Paul said (Galatians 3:17) that “the law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.” So too the work of Messiah did not annul the covenants previously established by God, but rather, Messiah was and is the crystallization of prophesy, the perfect expression of all of the covenants, the doorway allowing both people who are uniquely Jewish and those of us who are uniquely Gentile, to enter into relationship with God, co-inhabitants in a body that does require the heart, liver, lungs, spleen, stomach and many other organs, as opposed to being a single body, with a single organ, and a single identity, and a single function. A human being with only a stomach and no other parts couldn’t possibly live, so demanding absolute uniformity and canceling diversity within the body of Messiah kills the body.

Rabbi Packouz says the Jewish people are eternal. Circumcision is one of the signs of that eternal and unique existence before God. Opposing this is opposing God’s will. We can only be one in Messiah and possess the One Spirit of God by living in accordance with that One Spirit and that One God.

Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.

John 5:19 (NASB)

I’ve often heard that we should imitate our Master, but I don’t think in this case it means so much what we eat or what we wear, but rather, how we treat those who God has uniquely blessed. If we bless the Jewish people, we too are blessed by Israel and by Messiah. Of course, there is the converse.

Good Shabbos.

Straightening the Road of the King

what-is-the-churchWhat 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.

stream1Then 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)

stream2Here 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.

stream3Again, 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.”

The roadOne 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.

Abraham, Paul, Circumcision, and Galatians

Apostle-Paul-PreachesIt was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.

Galatians 5:1-6 (NASB)

On the surface, it seems as if Paul is speaking against circumcision, which is commanded by God to the Jewish people, that all their males will be circumcised on the eighth day of life. Did Paul just cancel God’s commandment to the Jews?

God said further to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”

Genesis 17:9-14 (NASB)

On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.

Leviticus 12:3 (NASB)

I don’t see how Paul could be addressing Jewish people in the above-quoted scripture from Galatians and telling them not to circumcise. To do so would be in direct contradiction to God, and I don’t see Paul doing that. Neither does Ariel Berkowitz as he states in his article A Torah-Positive Summary of Sha’ul’s Letter to the Galatians:

We come now to another commonly misinterpreted passage in Galatians. This is the section about circumcision. Any reader of this letter written by Sha’ul who does not pick up the context of the Letter to the Galatians by now has one final opportunity to observe the context.

In verses 2 and 3, it appears at first sight that Sha’ul is teaching against circumcision. In turn, by doing so, he would appear to be teaching against following the teachings of Moses. On the one hand, Sha’ul is teaching against circumcision – and against Moses – if people follow those practices in order to earn, merit, or keep their salvation. Sha’ul, the staunch defender of justification by faith, seems almost at a loss for words in his determination to convince his students to abandon any effort to use God’s Torah, or any teaching, in order to achieve their justification by doing the works of that teaching.

The context for understanding why Sha’ul is against circumcision (and the Torah) for legalistic purposes is found in Galatians 5:4, which states, “You who are trying to be justified by Torah have been alienated from Messiah; you have fallen away from grace.” Here, the writer clearly states the problem he was having with their practicing circumcision: They were “trying to be justified by Torah.” This is in perfect keeping with the theme of the letter, which we saw in chapter two.

On the other hand, Sha’ul had absolutely no problem with circumcision (or living the Torah) — as long as it is done with the proper motives and for the right reasons. There are two reasons why we say this. First, we have already seen that his was a life of consistent Torah observance. Second, he had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:1–3). One may debate about the reasons why Timothy was circumcised, but one cannot deny the fact that it was done and that Sha’ul was behind it. For these two reasons alone, we can see clearly that Sha’ul was not against circumcision per se, and consequently, not against proper Torah practice. But he was very much against it all if someone attempted to earn, merit, or keep his/her justification by performing it.

Galatians by D.T. LancasterThis explanation is in keeping with other portions of Berkowitz’s commentary, but here, he seems to indicate that both Jewish and Gentile believers should be circumcised in accordance to the commandments. That’s sort of understandable if we rely just on Genesis 17, but once we also involve Leviticus 12:3, we see circumcision as specifically a sign God gave for the Jewish males, not all males, such as Gentiles who are grafted in by faith in Messiah.

According to D. Thomas Lancaster in his book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, in “Sermon Twenty-Three: Circumcision and Uncircumcision” (pg 231):

Paul warns Gentiles about relying on Jewish status for salvation and declares circumcision irrelevant with regard to salvation.

Berkowitz and Lancaster have similar perspectives regarding Paul’s intent, but Lancaster states that in this section of his letter, Paul is specifically addressing Gentiles. Based on the above quoted passages from Genesis 17 and Leviticus 12, it was an enduring commandment for the Jews to circumcise their males eight days after birth. Of course, Paul also said (1 Corinthians 7:19), “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.”

That’s even more confusing because then we have to decide if Paul meant keeping all the commandments of God except the commandment to circumcise. However, in a larger context, Paul tells us:

Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches. Was any man called when he was already circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called.

Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. Brethren, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called.

1 Corinthians 7:17-24 (NASB)

That’s rather similar to the following:

For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.

Galatians 3:27-29 (NASB)

communityPut together, we seem to read that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters, just as there is neither Jew nor Greek. It appears as if we are all “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15) in Christ with no distinctions whatsoever. This argument has been used to justify both the complete rejection of observing the Torah mitzvot for any believing Jew or Gentile, and the complete acceptance of observing all the Torah mitzvot for every believing Jew or Gentile. It gets confusing.

Of course, when Paul says “neither male nor female,” he wasn’t obliterating physical distinctions between men and women. Another way to interpret Paul on this matter is to say that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision or being Jewish or Gentile matters as far as access to salvation and justification by faith in God through Messiah.

This preserves the commandment of circumcision for the Jews and still allows Paul’s statements to be consistent with God’s commandments.

I know there are some folks out there who will say that Abraham had faith and it was his seed (singular), the Messiah, that allows Gentiles to enter into a covenant relationship with God. And Abraham was commanded to be circumcised and to circumcise his male children and all the males in his household. Doesn’t that mean we Gentile believers need to be circumcised too?

Not so fast!

Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Genesis 15:6 (NASB)

This is the establishment of faith as the primary linkage for anyone to enter into a covenant relationship with God. But the linkage for the blessings to the nations through Messiah comes earlier:

And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.

Genesis 12:3 (NASB)

Between the two above verses, we have the complete set of requirements that allows Gentiles to enter into covenant relationship with God through faith in Messiah (you can find a more complete description in my blog post The Jesus Covenant Part 8: Abraham, Jews, and Christians).

However, much later on, when Abraham was ninety-nine years old, something new happened. God made a covenant with Abraham that included a physical offspring, the Land of Israel, and circumcision. These, in my opinion, were conditions of God’s relationship with Abraham that took a different trajectory. Certainly the requirement of faith was carried down from the previous encounters with God, but God identified a specific population that were to be included relative to the Genesis 17 promises: Abraham’s physical descendents and members of his household were included in the circumcision requirement.

Does that mean Isaac, Ishmael, Eliezer, and all other males in Abraham’s household at this moment became Hebrews? No, because there’s more. Circumcision certainly created a linkage to Abraham but not all circumcised people become Hebrews, Israelites, or Jews.

Now Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore to him Zimran and Jokshan and Medan and Midian and Ishbak and Shuah. Jokshan became the father of Sheba and Dedan. And the sons of Dedan were Asshurim and Letushim and Leummim. The sons of Midian were Ephah and Epher and Hanoch and Abida and Eldaah. All these were the sons of Keturah. Now Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac; but to the sons of his concubines, Abraham gave gifts while he was still living, and sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the east.

Genesis 25:1-6 (NASB)

abrahams-servantAfter Sarah died, Abraham married other wives and had other children. But before Abraham died, he sent away all of his other offspring, giving them gifts, and then singled out Isaac, the Child promised to him by God to fulfill the Genesis 17 covenant involving Abraham’s offspring, circumcision, and the Land of Israel. Of course, Abraham had circumcised Ishmael and all of his other sons as well as Isaac, but Isaac was the only beneficiary of the covenant relationship involving what would eventually become the Jewish people. Even his other sons, let alone the other non-relative males (servants, slaves, herdsmen) in his household who had been circumcised, were not inheritors of the covenant that led to possession of the Land of Israel and the conditions specified for the descendents of Isaac and Jacob, the Children of Israel, the Jewish people…the Torah of Moses.

If, as a Christian male, you believe you have an obligation to be circumcised and to circumcise your sons, no one is going to stop you, but being circumcised, even with the belief that it is required of the spiritual offspring of Abraham, does not create any sort of linkage between you and Abraham’s physical descendants. It doesn’t give you the Land of Israel, and it doesn’t obligate you to observing the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews.

By Paul’s day, circumcision of males became a sort of shorthand way of saying “conversion to Judaism.” Paul was right in saying that circumcision (converting to Judaism) does not justify anyone before God, just as performing all of the mitzvot (for Jew or Gentile) does not justify.

Hopefully, at some point, I’ll be able to write on why Abraham was commanded to circumcise physical offspring who would not inherit Israel or non-relative males who also would not inherit, but for now, I will say that Paul did not believe that circumcision was a guarantee of salvation for Jew or Gentile, however I understand that he believed circumcision was still a requirement for the Jews, as were the other mitzvot of Torah. If he was teaching Jews not to circumcise their sons, then he was lying here:

After Paul arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him which they could not prove, while Paul said in his own defense, “I have committed no offense either against the Law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.”

Acts 25:7-8 (NASB)

PaulActs 21:20-26 contains more complete text testifying to the fact that Paul never taught the diaspora Jews to fail to circumcise their sons. If he was lying here, then we can have no confidence in anything Paul wrote which would leave the majority of the New Testament in a shambles, along with our Christian faith.

If you, a Christian, feel you must be circumcised and you must circumcise your sons, remember that it does not justify you before God, it does not put you in the line of succession of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Jacob’s twelve sons, and of the twelve tribes, and the Torah of Moses, and give you possession of the Land of Israel. At best, you may be aligned with the non-physical relative members of Abraham’s household, but then, we are still searching for what they and their circumcision mean.

Yes, Timothy was circumcised by Paul, but Titus the Gentile believer specifically was not. Neither was Cornelius the Roman and his entire household. Neither do we have a record of any other Gentile believers who were required to be circumcised as a condition of faith in Messiah. Think of this as you will.

For more on this topic, please read If Paul Had Circumcised Gentiles.