Tag Archives: Acts

Paul Picks Up His Cross

pick-up-your-crossAnd when they came to him, he said to them:

“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again.

Acts 20:18-25 (ESV)

While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem.

Acts 21:10-12 (ESV)

Several days ago, in my blog post about my second conversation with Pastor Randy on D. Thomas Lancaster’s Galatians book, I discussed the possibility that Paul may have lied to the Jews in Jerusalem about teaching the diaspora Jews to not circumcise their sons and not follow the Torah of Moses. Was Paul afraid for his life and out of that fear, would he have lied or “bent the truth” about any portion of his mission in order to save himself?

I gave my opinion, based on my general understanding of Paul, that he would not have lied and he would have unflinchingly told the truth about his activities among the diaspora Jews and God-fearing Gentile believers, regardless of the consequences. I found the concrete proof (blame my failing middle-age memory for not recalling these verses earlier) in the passages of scripture I quoted above. Not only would he face many hardships to serve the Master, but he had a pretty good idea that once he entered Jerusalem, he might not be leaving again alive.

But he went to Jerusalem anyway, even after repeated warnings not to go. And once he was in Jerusalem and his adversaries among the Jewish people began to respond to the false rumors about him, he followed the advice of James and the elders to quickly reassure the Jewish population, including the believing Jews who were zealous for the Torah, that he had not forsaken the customs of their fathers, the Law of Moses, and was not teaching other Jews to abandon the Torah.

What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law.

Acts 21:22-24 (ESV)

Later passages in Acts 21 and beyond tell us that the rumors continued and the prophesied troubles of Paul that were a consequence of his entering Jerusalem all came to pass. But Paul went to Jerusalem with high hopes:

Paul wanted to present these [God-fearing Gentile] men to the apostles and Jewish believers in Jerusalem. He hoped that the character and quality of the delegates would silence his critics and set all fears to rest about the type of disciple he raised in the Diaspora.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Commentary on Acts 20-21:14, read with Torah Portion Tzav (“Command”), pg 651
Torah Club Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles

Paul-ArrestedOne of those Gentile disciples that Paul wanted to present to the apostles was probably Trophimus the Ephesian, the man some Jews from Asia thought Paul had taken into the Temple, defiling the Holy Place. Again, this wasn’t true, but as Winston Churchill once said, “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Apparently that was true nearly 2,000 years before Churchill was born and I don’t doubt that it’s true today. The sad outcome is that Paul stood condemned before the Jewish population of Jerusalem based on a fabric of lies that whipped the crowds into a frenzied riot.

But Paul knew he would face hard trials before they actually happened and nevertheless, went ahead into Jerusalem to accept whatever God had planned for him.

And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.

Acts 20:22-23 (ESV)

The dedication of Paul to God was remarkable, but then again, a disciple always seeks to emulate the life of his Master, even unto death.

And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.

John 10:16-18 (ESV)

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

John 15:13 (ESV)

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”

Luke 22:42 (ESV)

Paul also emulated his Master by being a “good shepherd” to his own flock, and as such, Paul strived to make provisions for their continuation and guidance under other “good shepherds.”

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

Acts 20:8-35 (ESV)

Paul knew the dangers that the believing Jews and Gentiles in the diaspora were facing, particularly if Paul would no longer be alive or at least not be free to continue to visit them and support them with his letters. So he, like Moses before him, gave them a warning to watch out for apostasy and for “wolves” who would come in and surely lead them astray. He also very likely knew, just as Moses did, that apostasy was inevitable.

For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.”

Deuteronomy 31:29 (ESV)

In his letter to the mixed congregation of believing Jews and Gentiles in Rome, he tried exceedingly hard to give the same warning.

So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!

Romans 11:11-12 (ESV)

Read the entire chapter for the full argument, but it seems apparent to me that Paul was urging the Jewish and Gentile disciples to regard each other as equal before God in salvation and access, working as different parts with different functions and responsibilities, but all operating in a single body:

For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

Romans 12:4-5 (ESV)

So, in what he knew was his final journey to Jerusalem and possibly the last journey of his life, Paul encouraged the “shepherds” placed over the Master’s flocks, to “feed the sheep.”

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

John 21:15-17 (ESV)

the-shepherdOther passages in the letters of Paul testify to his disregard for his own safety and even his life in the service of the Master. Consider 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10, 6:4-10, Philippians 1:19-26, 2:17, 3:8, and 2 Timothy 4:6.

No, Paul did not lie, bend the truth, or misrepresent any of his actions in order to protect himself. The Paul we see in Acts 21 is the genuine Paul, who was given a hard task by his Master and Lord, and fulfilled it with remarkable courage in the face of overwhelming hardships. He never told the diaspora Jews to not follow the Torah of Moses or the traditions. He never encouraged Jews to not circumcise their sons. He never taught anyone against the Jewish people, against the Temple, or against the Law.

Even when he knew that disaster awaited him in Jerusalem, he did not fail, he did not shirk his responsibilities, but instead, continued to follow where Jesus the Nazarene led him.

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Matthew 16:21-28 (ESV)

Should such a time come in our lives when the Master asks us to pick up our cross and follow him, to offer more of ourselves than we would like to give, even including our lives, may we remain as steadfast in our mission as Paul, the Jew from Tarsus, the good shepherd.

Four Questions, Part 4

tallit_templeThis is a continuation on the topic I started discussing in Lancaster’s Galatians: Introduction, Audience, and What Happened to the Torah? and continued in Broad Strokes. I asked the first three of these four questions in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series. Part 4 presents the fourth and final question. Hopefully, the answer will be illuminating.

Just a reminder, all quotes from scripture will be from the ESV Bible unless otherwise stated.

Belief in the coming of the Messiah has always been a fundamental part of both Judaism and Christianity. The Hebrew word for Messiah, Mashiach or Moshiach, means anointed, as does the Greek word, christos. Thus in Christianity, Christ is just another word for the Messiah. Much has been written about Jesus as the Messiah within the Christian realm, but little information has been publicized to the uninformed Jewish community concerning the coming of a Messiah, whom all we know about is that he will be a direct descendant of king David. Although Jesus has been proposed by Christianity to be such a descendant, Judaism does not accept Christ as their savior or king. Because the Messiah cannot be separated from God’s Third Temple and because God’s Third Temple is destined for all people…

“Coming of the Messiah”
ThirdTempleInfo.org

“For thus says the Lord: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings, and to make sacrifices forever.”

Jeremiah 33:17-18

I’ve written about the Messiah and the Third Temple before, but this is a slightly different approach because of the fourth and last question.

What is the Future of the Torah and the Temple?

Pastor Randy and I both agree that there will be another Temple built in Jerusalem, and if the Jewish understandings of the prophesies about Messiah are accurate, then we know that Messiah will build the Temple.

Here’s a brief refresher about the Messianic prophesies courtesy of Judaism 101:

The mashiach will bring about the political and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people by bringing us back to Israel and restoring Jerusalem (Isaiah 11:11-12; Jeremiah 23:8; 30:3; Hosea 3:4-5). He will establish a government in Israel that will be the center of all world government, both for Jews and gentiles (Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:10; 42:1). He will rebuild the Temple and re-establish its worship (Jeremiah 33:18). He will restore the religious court system of Israel and establish Jewish law as the law of the land (Jeremiah 33:15).

The idea of a Third Temple gets a bad rap from a lot of Christians because it begs the question about future sacrifices. If the sacrificial system only existed to point to Jesus and Jesus has come, gone, and will come again, why would Jesus, upon his return, build another Temple and (supposedly) restart the sacrificial system? Weren’t our sins already paid for once and for all by Christ’s death on the cross?

What makes you think that the only sacrifices made in the Temple were for sin? Also, what makes you think that only Jews made sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple of the past or that Gentiles won’t make sacrifices in the Third Temple?

That Gentiles as well as Jews brought sacrifices to the Temple is implied in the prayer of Solomon when he dedicated the Temple (I Kings 8:41-3) and in the declaration by the prophet that the Temple will be a house of prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56:7).

-Rabbi Louis Jacobs
“Sacrifice”
MyJewishLearning.com

Within the Books of the Prophets, we find that in the past, Gentiles were welcomed to the First and Second Temples, and that they will participate even more at the Third Temple.

In his commentary on the Torah section beginning with Gen. 12:1, Ramban (Nachmanides) wrote:

“Even in the time of Joshua, … the Gentiles knew that this place was the most august of all, that it was at the center of the inhabited world; and Tradition had taught them that it corresponds in this world to the celestial Temple where Divine Majesty, called (righteousness), resides.”

When the First Temple was inaugurated by King Solomon, he beseeched G-d with an eloquent prayer that included the following words (Kings I, 8:41-43) (which show that in the past, Gentiles were welcomed to the First and Second Temples, and that they will participate even more in the Third Temple):

“If a foreigner who is not of Your people Israel comes from a distant land for the sake of Your name – for they shall hear about Your great name and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm – when he comes to pray toward this House, oh, hear in Your heavenly abode and grant all [!] that the foreigner asks You for. Thus all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as does Your people Israel; and they will recognize that Your name is attached to this House that I have built.”

Torah Law holds that Gentiles are allowed to bring burnt offerings to G-d in the Temple when it is standing in Jerusalem. There is a specific commandment to let us know that an animal (sheep, goat or bullock) offered in the Temple by a Gentile must be unblemished, to the same degree as the offering of a Jew. (Leviticus 22:25)

-from “Will Gentiles be permitted to worship at the Third Temple in Jerusalem?”
AskNoah.org

messiah-prayerI know I’m borrowing heavily from my previous blog post and you may be wondering why I just didn’t reblog it as the answer to this fourth question. But here’s the new thought.

If there indeed will be a Third Temple that Messiah will build and if part, most, or all of the sacrificial system will be reinstated, then what is the role of the Torah in Messianic Days?

Pastor Randy and I talk a lot about what the role of Torah was in the days before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and what the role of Torah is now. He believes, using Orthodox Jewish halachah as a guide, that the Torah is too difficult to keep and has always been too difficult to keep. I’m pretty sure I spelled a lot of that out in my blog post about my last conversation with him a week ago.

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

Deuteronomy 30:11-14

Doesn’t sound like Moses (or God) intended the Torah to be too difficult to obey or too hard to access.

Here’s another reason why the Torah has a future in the days of Messiah.

Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths. And if any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, there will be no rain on them. And if the family of Egypt does not go up and present themselves, then on them there shall be no rain; there shall be the plague with which the Lord afflicts the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. This shall be the punishment to Egypt and the punishment to all the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths.

Zechariah 14:16-19

I could draw from more scriptural quotes but chances are you know them all and they’re referenced above anyway. If a Third Temple will be built by Messiah, and if sacrifices and festivals that require sacrifices will be reinstated, and if Gentiles will not only be allowed to worship at the Temple and make sacrifices but in some cases, required to do so, then how will all that be possible if the Torah is not observed, at least as far as the Temple is concerned?

It seems clear that the Torah had a vital role in the existence of the Jews of ancient Israel and it will have a vital role in future, Messianic Israel. But what happens to Torah in the meantime? Does it just vanish temporarily from existence, put in cold storage until it’s needed, and then brought out, thawed out, and then be put back into service when Messiah starts his construction work?

Well, no. First of all, religious Jews observe the Torah every day. For that matter, Christians observe substantial portions of the Torah (ideally) every day. Every time a Christian performs any act of kindness in the name of Jesus, he or she is observing one of the mitzvot. They (we) just don’t call it that. Every time a Christian donates money, food, or some other good or service to the poor, they are observing a mitzvah (probably more than one). Every time a Christian comforts a person who is grief-stricken at the loss of a loved one, performs an act of kindness that assists the successful wedding of a bride, visits a sick person in the hospital, visits someone in jail, shovels snow off of a neighbor’s driveway and sidewalk unasked…they are performing Torah mitzvot.

The Torah is hardly obsolete. The Law isn’t dead. In fact, if Christians and Christianity are functioning properly, the Torah is alive and well and being performed in churches around the world and in the lives of Christians and their neighbors every day. The Torah is also alive and well and being performed in synagogues around the world and in the lives of Jews and their neighbors every day. No, not all Christians and not all Jews are doing what God expects of them (us), but some are. Not everything that some Christians think of as “the Word of God” and not everything that some Jews think of as “Torah” is really God’s Word and Torah.

Some Christians have some pretty funny ideas about how they’re supposed to judge people who don’t comply with their personal political and social agenda, and some Jews have some pretty funny ideas about how far to take all of the massive compilation of halachah that has become attached to Torah. I suspect when Messiah returns, he’s going to help us all out by teaching us what God’s expectations are really all about and what the Torah is supposed to mean as applied to Gentile Christians and as applied to Jews.

But be that as it may, the Torah has a past, a present, and a future. It has to, otherwise what even traditional Christians understand about the Bible doesn’t make sense, and many specific passages of scripture don’t make sense.

I have no idea exactly how we are to apply the Torah in the lives of Jews or Christians today except in a general, common sense way. As I’ve said numerous times before, based on Acts 15, Acts 21 and various other scriptures, I don’t believe that Gentile, God-fearing believers in Messiah are expected to observe the mitzvot in the manner of the Jews. I do believe we are to observe it as taught by Messiah, and what he taught focused on the acts of kindness and charity I mentioned above. I also believe that Jewish people, believers in Messiah Yeshua and otherwise, remain under all of the covenants that God made with Israel. The New Covenant extends the part of the Abrahamic covenant that allows the Messiah to bless the nations to the rest of us, providing salvation and relationship to God for the Gentiles who are called by Messiah’s name, and providing reaffirmation of all of the previous covenants to the Jewish people.

renewalWhat’s New about the New Covenant, as I was recently reminded, is that it will be written on our hearts. The actual content of the writing won’t change but how we will perceive it and live it out will be different. I say “will be” as opposed to “is” because if the “writing” were a done deal, we all would be leading very different lives, rising above sin, rising above the cares of the world, all “knowing God” in a way that currently escapes us.

Messiah opened the door and he holds all the keys, but he’s not done yet and until he is, the finger of God is still in motion, slowly inscribing “Torah” on the hearts of Christians and Jews everywhere.

But that Torah is and will be about the Temple, Sukkot, Pesach, Shavuot, and many more things most Christians don’t consider important anymore. That Torah will be a pure product, freed from our biases, our interpretations, our confusion, and our controversies.

But there was a Torah. There is a Torah. And there will be a Torah. Our current understanding is not very good, and like Paul said, we are seeing the Bible and the things of God as through a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12). We’re all still going to mess up a “free lunch” until Messiah returns. Until then, we still have to eat that lunch, so to speak, even if we do so poorly. At least we’re mindful of God and His will and His Word.

For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

Matthew 5:18

Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

Romans 3:31

I hope you enjoyed going over these four questions with me. As you read this, it is Wednesday morning, and tonight, I’ll have another conversation with Pastor on Lancaster’s “Galatians” book. May I continue to be inspired and illuminated by my relationship with Pastor Randy and may God grant both of us the eyes to see and the ears to hear what our Master is teaching us all.

Addendum, March 21: My wife emailed me a link to Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe’s article The Dynamic of Sacrifices. Rabbi Yaffe tells a wonderful story about the meaning of the Olah offering, the fire from God, and how the sacrifices in the Third Temple, built by Messiah, will provide the means for a unity between all people.

“I will bring them to My holy mount, and I will cause them to rejoice in My house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon My altar, for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Isaiah 56:7

Amen and may it come soon and in our days.

Four Questions, Part 3

fall-of-jerusalemThis is a continuation on the topic I started discussing in Lancaster’s Galatians: Introduction, Audience, and What Happened to the Torah? and continued in Broad Strokes. I asked the first two of these four questions in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. Part 3 presents the third question. Hopefully, the answer will be illuminating.

Just a reminder, all quotes from scripture will be from the ESV Bible unless otherwise stated.

Were the Jewish Apostles of Jesus Supposed to Remain in Jerusalem During the Fall?

History records that the Romans destroyed Herod’s Temple and exiled the Jews from Israel in the year 70 of the Common Era (CE). Israel was renamed “Palestine” by the Romans as in insult to the Jews. We also know that there was always a small remnant of Jewish people in “Palestine” from that time until the formation of the modern state of Israel in 1948. But of those who remained in Jerusalem and in the Land during and just after the destruction of the Temple, how many were disciples of the Master?

The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the subsequent expulsion of the majority of Jews from what would be called Palestine marked a disastrous shift in the Jewish authority over the Messianic community. Up until that time, the head of the Jerusalem leadership of the Messianic community, otherwise referred to as “the bishop of the church”, had always been Jewish. Once the Jews were expelled from Jerusalem by Hadrian, for the first time a Gentile had to be elected into the role. As events moved forward from that point in time, the Gentile presence in the Messianic community grew dramatically while the Jewish leaders and worshipers of Yeshua struggled under the heartbreak of the loss of the Temple and the ejection from their land.

-James Pyles
“Origins of Supersessionism in the Church”
Part one in a four-part series
published in Messiah Journal
Issue 109/Winter 2012

I bring all this up because one of the topics Pastor Randy and I discussed was whether or not the Jewish disciples of the Way “abandoned ship,” so to speak, when the rest of the Jews were expelled from Israel at this point in history. It’s Pastor’s opinion that they did and that it was definitely the wrong thing for them to do. In his opinion, they should have stayed.

Should they have fought the Romans like the zealots? Should they have died like the Jews at Masada?

I don’t know if Pastor is suggesting such a thing. Dying, down to the last man as martyrs, may have been a dramatic move and even a faithful one, but it would not have allowed the apostles to survive and to spread the word of Moshiach to the Jews and Gentiles of the diaspora.

I remember when Pastor was delivering a sermon on the death of Stephen (see Acts 7:54-60) and the consequences that followed his demise.

And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.

Acts 8:1

According to Pastor, one of the effects of the scattering of devout Jewish believers away from Jerusalem was to allow the spreading of the gospel message throughout Judea and Samaria. This is how I see one of the results of the destruction of Jerusalem and the great exile of the Jews to the diaspora. Not that Paul had been unsuccessful in taking the message of the Messiah to much of the then civilized world, but this “allowed” (though it was a terrible thing) all or most of the believing Jews in the Land to take who they were and extend that into the galut to other Jewish and probably Gentile communities.

That’s one thought, anyway.

Did Jesus ask or require the believing Jews to stay in Jerusalem during this time of great tragedy?

“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

Luke 21:20-24

It seems clear that Jesus was telling those who are in Judea to flee to the mountains. Also, those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it. He knew that many [would] fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations. Nowhere in that short narrative do I hear the Master telling anyone to stay and die. In fact, it was necessary for Jerusalem to be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles [were] fulfilled.

I don’t know if the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled yet, but the modern nation of Israel has been in existence for over sixty years now, so if our time isn’t yet up, it soon will be.

I mentioned before, in quoting from my “supersessionism” article, that up until the destruction of Jerusalem, every leader of the Council of Apostles had been Jewish. When the Jews were expelled, the first “bishop of the church” had to be a non-Jew since at that time, they were “flying below the radar” of the Romans, so to speak. It’s not unlike the situation with Lydia and the devout God-fearing women in Philippi.

So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.

Acts 16:11-15

jerusalem-at-nightThe Jewish population in that area had been expelled at some earlier point, but the God-fearing Gentiles were “under the radar,” and not included in the exile from Philippi because they had not been counted as Jews, even through they had been worshipping in the synagogue with Jews, praying with Jews, discussing Torah with Jews, and otherwise having fellowship with Jews. When Paul and his party came upon Lydia and her companions by the river, he must have understood that these Gentile women were all who were left of those devoted to Hashem to keep the worship of the God of Israel alive in that community. Perhaps the same can be said of the Gentile believers in Jerusalem after 70 CE, but it’s hard to tell.

There has always been a Jewish remnant in Israel for the past 2,000 years. When the Temple was utterly destroyed, when the golden menorah melted and flowed like water, when Jerusalem herself moaned in agony like a woman in hard labor, after all these things, who is to say if, among the Jewish remnant, there were followers of Yeshua HaMashiach or not. There’s no way to know.

I don’t think the Messianic Jews had a specific mandate to stay and endure the incredible suffering of Israel’s downfall under the Romans. If some did stay, so much the better, but I believe what happened was supposed to happen. I think God knew. I think the words of Jesus tell us that he expected it and expected those who listened to him to flee. The time of the Gentiles was upon them.

But that time is running out fast.

Only one more question left. Be here for Part 4 in the conclusion of this series in tomorrow’s “morning meditation.

Distinctions

distinctionsFor before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.

Galatians 2:12-13 (ESV)

Who were these certain men from James? In the Greek of the period, the term “a certain man” usually indicates someone of prestige. By saying that they were certain men from James, Saul (Paul) indicated that they were from the Evyoinim, the Jerusalem community fo believers. The “certain men” from James must have been prestigious members of Jerusalem’s community, perhaps apostles, members of the Twelve, or even members of the Master’s extended family such as sons of Clopas. Whoever they were, their approval or disapproval seems to have carried weight.

Luke does not tell us why they came to Antioch, but when they arrived, they expressed their disapproval about the free intermingling of Jewish and Gentile believers. Saul referred to them as “the circumcision,” a term he uses to indicate Jewish believers.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Va’era (“and I appeared”) (pp 366)
Commentary on Galatians 2:1-18, Acts 12:25

One of the things I’ve been trying to communicate lately is that no religious or faith community is perfect and free from conflict. As we see above, that includes the early community of “the Way” as Paul was taking the message of the Jewish Messiah to the non-Jews in the diaspora. While Paul obviously felt very strongly about his mission to the goyim, there were apparent difficulties, one being the “free intermingling of Jewish and Gentile believers.” Peter himself was instrumental in bringing the first household of Gentiles into full covenant relationship with Jesus (Acts 10) and yet, when “certain men from James” came to Antioch, Peter, who had previously felt comfortable eating with the Gentile believers, suddenly became intimidated and drew back from them. According to Lancaster’s interpretation, there was a difference of opinion among the “high-ranking” Jews of the Way as to the appropriate level of contact (or lack thereof) between Jews and non-Jews who shared a faith in the Christ; the Moshiach.

One of the things I sometimes hear from folks in the Hebrew Roots movement is that there was originally a sort of “super-unity” between the First Century Jewish and Gentile believers, and that, apart from a string of DNA indicating that one had Hebrew lineage and another did not, they became identical “co-heirs” in the Kingdom, sharing everything, including covenant identity and covenant responsibilities relative to the Torah mitzvot. While I agree that the early Gentile Christians, those who lived in the day of James, Peter, and Paul, most likely did live a worship and daily lifestyle that appeared far more “Jewish” than we Christians do today, it is obvious from this section of Paul’s letter to the Galatians and Lancaster’s commentary on the matter (which he no doubt borrowed from his “must have” book on the topic The Holy Epistle to the Galatians) that there was already “trouble in paradise.”

Lancaster, referencing material from Magnus Zetterholm’s book Approaches to Paul: A Student’s Guide to Recent Scholarship (Fortress Press, 2009) states the following:

The Jewish believers from James argued that, if the Gentile believers were fellowshipping and worshipping and eating within Jewish space, they should go the full distance and become Jewish. If they chose not to do so, they should be set outside the Jewish community – quarantined, so to speak – so that the distinction between Jew and Gentile remained perfectly clear. In expressing that opinion, they may or may not have been expressing the opinion of James, the brother of the Master.

-Lancaster, pg 367

PaulNot only does Lancaster introduce the idea that representatives of James did not approve of a completely free intermingling between Jews and Gentiles in the movement and advocated for a separation between the two groups socially, we see strong signs of disagreement on this very matter between different groups of Jews in the apostolic community.

But what about Paul? According to Lancaster:

Saul saw that the separation could only result, ultimately, in two different faith communities, two different religions, and two different peoples: a Gentile ekklesia and a Jewish ekklesia, and he did not care for that prospect. He took a bold step; he even stepped out of line and rebuked Simon Peter.

-ibid

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.

Galatians 2:11 (ESV)

Paul called Peter out on his hypocrisy in having table fellowship with Gentiles when the “big wigs” weren’t around but shying away from his Gentile brothers when they were. Paul doesn’t seem to be a person who really cared about appearances and he had a lot invested in his relationship with the Gentiles he mentored.

James, Peter, Paul, and the rest of the Jewish apostles and believers were Jews who lived a halakhic Jewish lifestyle consistent with that period of time and who maintained that their faith in the God of Israel through the Jewish Messiah was wholly Jewish. Integrating non-Jews without requiring them to convert to Judaism (and Peter knew this since he deliberately did not have Cornelius and his household circumcised after receiving the Holy Spirit and before baptism by water – see Acts 10:44-47) was an amazingly difficult task. How was it to be done?

While the men from James felt that the Gentiles should either be circumcised and convert to Judaism or be completely segregated from the Jewish community, Paul had grave misgivings about the separation of believing Jews and Gentiles, and yet, this is the same Paul who likely foresaw just such an event.

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved…

Romans 11:25-26 (ESV)

traintracksAs much as he may have resisted it and even dreaded it, Paul could very well have known that the Gentiles and Jews would ultimately travel divergent trajectories across future history and indeed, that is exactly what has happened.

After all, Paul came to forcefully realize the depth of the Jewish struggle in attempting to accept Gentiles within a Jewish religious and identity context:

When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.

Acts 21:27-29 (ESV)

When I was reading this part of Lancaster’s commentary on Galatians 2, I couldn’t help but think of the struggles in the modern Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots communities over the very same matters. How are Jews and Gentiles supposed to interact with each other within a Hebraic worship context? What role should a Gentile Christian take in a Messianic Jewish fellowship? Should Jews and Gentiles all say the same prayers? Should we all wear tzitzit? Will a Jewish Cantor or Rabbi call a Gentile worshiper up to an aliyah to read a Torah Portion during Shabbat services?

I know I mine this particular nugget of information often, but Rabbi Dr. Michael Schiffman’s article Messianic Judaism and Christianity: Two Religions With The Same Messiah speaks volumes about the current struggle that we also find in Paul’s letter to the ancient Galatians.

I’m not sure what to do about it but then again, I’m in no position to do anything about it. I’m not in charge of any aspect of any movement that would allow me to take a definitive action impacting Jewish and Gentile relationships within the Hebrew/Jewish Roots or Messianic Jewish communities (or the larger traditional Christian communities for that matter). According to Lancaster, Paul desired a unity that extended up to the level of table-fellowship, but it seems unlikely that he would have advocated for a complete fusing of Jewish/Gentile identities. He never advocated for Gentiles becoming fully Jewish:

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.

Galatians 5:2-3 (ESV)

On the other hand, Lancaster said this of Paul:

Saul pointed out that, if Simon Peter, of all people, built a sharp division between Jew and Gentile by removing himself from table-fellowship with Gentiles, he was rebuilding the barrier that he had originally torn down (see Galatians 2:18)…If he agreed that Jews and Gentile believers should limit their social and table interaction, then he had erred by tearing down that wall of division in the first place and proved himself to have been living in sin and transgression.

-Lancaster, pg 369

Let me tell you a story.

I heard this story very recently and I was impressed.

A certain Christian was traveling with a tour group in Israel led by a number of Jews. Each morning, the Jews would rise early and form a minyan to pray shacharit. The Christian would also rise early to pray, but never approached the Jewish minyan. He sat in the back of the room where the minyan had gathered, reading his Bible and praying. When the minyan was finished with prayers, the Christian was finished with prayers and they joined each other for breakfast. In a way you might not expect, this formed a bond between the Jewish men and the Christian, one of mutual respect and perhaps even a realization that Jew and Christian mutually shared a devotion to God.

SuccothThe Christian now lives in America and still keeps in touch with some of the Jewish men he traveled with in Israel based, in part, on what they “shared” in morning prayers.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that a complete division between believing Jews and Gentiles is the way to go. Paul seemed to believe there should be some sort of interaction between the two groups, though how far he would have taken it is questionable. Jewish believers such as Rabbi Dr Schiffman recognize that Jews and Christians must maintain separate religions, as the emissaries from James supported, to preserve Jewish covenant identity. Yet like Paul (and Lancaster), there are other groups within Messianic Judaism where Jews and Gentiles do worship together and share table-fellowship in peace.

Halalaic Jews in the movement of Messianic Judaism are still a minority population, with the majority of worshipers and leaders being non-Jews. But there are enough Jews present to beg the questions we see expressed in Galatians 2. We debate back and forth and occasionally, arguments become heated, but the struggle in which we’re engaged is very old. I don’t know if Paul ever solved his dilemma or if he and James (or the men he sent to Antioch) ever came to an agreement on the matter. I only know what Peter finally concluded as he addressed James and the Council.

And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.

Acts 15:8-9 (ESV)

May we who possess the Spirit of God within us and who humbly attempt to walk in the dust of the footsteps of our Master be granted wisdom and fellowship in the presence of Christ, the Messiah.

The Evolution of Judaism, Part 6: Evolutions

ancient_jerusalemThe best evidence that the temple was the locus of prayer during the First and Second Temple periods is the book of Psalms. Virtually all the biblical psalms, even those that lament personal or national catastrophes or that hail a king at this coronation, are hymns of praise to God. They range in date from the period of the monarchy, if not earlier (some of them are Israelite versions of Canaanite or Egyptian hymns), to that of the Maccabees.

All these texts imply that the recitation of prayers was a prominent feature of Jewish piety, not just for sectarians like the Jews of Qumran but also for plain folk. Jews who lived in or near Jerusalem prayed regularly at the temple. This is the plausible claim of Luke 1:10, “Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside [the temple],” and Acts 3:1, “One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon.”

By the third century BCE, diaspora Jews began to build special proseuchai, which literally means “prayers” but probably should be translated “prayer-houses.” Instead of “prayer-houses,” the Jews of the land of Israel had synagogai, which literally means “gatherings” but probably should be translated “meeting-houses.” Whether they prayed regularly in their “meeting-houses,” which are not attested before the first century CE, is not entirely clear.

The history of this (Amidah or Eighteen Benedictions) prayer is immensely complicated, but its basic contours were established no later than the second century CE, and its nucleus certainly derives from the latter part of the Second Temple times. It bears obvious similarities to the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4).

…by the end of the Second Temple period, sections of the Torah were read publicly in synagogues every week.

The purpose of all these rituals was, as the Torah repeatedly says, to make Israel a “holy” people (Exod. 19:6; Lev. 19:2; Deut. 7:6). To better achieve this objective, the Jews of the Second Temple period developed new rituals, broadened the application of many of the laws of the Torah, and in general intensified the life of service to God.

After the destruction of the temple, the petition was changed from a prayer for acceptability of the sacrifices to a prayer for their restoration, and the petition entered the Eighteen Benedictions. In rabbinic times, the prayer was still in flux.

This practice is based on the idea that God can be worshiped through the study of his revealed word.

-Shaye J.D. Cohen
Chapter 3: The Jewish “Religion:” Practices and Beliefs
From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 2nd Ed.

Forgive the rather lengthy history lesson from different portions of this chapter in Cohen’s landmark book, but as I’ve continued to read from his work, I’ve been struck by how Judaism developed significantly in practice and in its comprehension of a life of devotion to God from the days of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the desert to the post-Second Temple era. Some time ago, I began a series of blog posts intended to outline the evolution of Judaism as it applies to Yeshua (Jesus), halakhah, and the “acceptability” of the various Judaisms in any given age and across time to the God who established Israel as a nation. You can follow the link at the end of Part 1 of the series to review all of my comments to date, which ends at Part 5. I had intended for Messiah in the Jewish Writings, Part 1 to be the “sixth” part of the series, but it was pointed out to me that certain “weaknesses” in the scholarship of the material from which I was quoting made it unsuitable for that purpose.

Before proceeding, you should probably review Noel S. Rabbinowitz’s paper “Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse their Halakhah?” which can be found as a PDF as published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46:3 (September 2003): 423-47. That, along with reading the other “Evolution” blog posts in this series, should provide the foundation for continuing (and ultimately concluding) the discussion here.

In providing the series of quotes from Cohen’s book, I intended to illustrate how what was acceptable Jewish practice in worship, Temple sacrifice, and prayer developed over time and was never a single, static set of religious rules and procedures that perfectly reflected the intent of the Torah and God in the life of Israel. Sometimes in certain corners of Christianity and its variants, we find people who sincerely are seeking a more authentic method of practicing their faith, based on some sort of idealized and perfect template or model that was established, either by Moses or Jesus. Somehow that particular set of behaviors is believed to be what God wants us to do and is the only valid model by which we should construct our faith practices in the present age.

But as the title of this series implies, perhaps the human practice of worshiping God can never be static nor was it ever intended to be a single set of rigid rules and concrete regulations that never modified in the slightest across the long centuries between Sinai and the present.

I don’t mean that right and wrong don’t have timeless value and that God changes His requirements for humanity at a whim, but humanity changes, circumstances change, and what seems right to do at one point in human history seems very much different at another point on the timeline of existence. Surely how Solomon viewed what was proper worship differed greatly from what the Rambam might have considered right Jewish practice, and yet can we say that either one of them (or both) was wrong? They were both certainly convinced that they were doing what God required, but who they were, where they lived, and the demands of history upon both of these men (and the untold scores that lived before and since) were radically dissimilar.

But while you may understand this relative to the history of the Jewish people, what at all does this have to do with believers in Jesus and who we are in Christ?

Agrippa’s first full year as king over Judea (41/42 CE) was a Sabbatical year. Drought had already begun to hamper the land. The people were gathered for Sukkot to pray for rain and to hear the new king read from the Torah (see Deut. 31:10-11). The apostles and the disciples of Yeshua were present along with the rest of the pious of Israel to witness the historic event. Their hearts burned within them, jealous for the Master. They longed for the day when King Messiah will stand in the Temple and read the Torah aloud to the assembly of Israel.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Shemot (“Names”) (pg 329)
Commentary on Acts 12:1-24

Yom Kippur prayersLancaster is no doubt taking a bit of poetic license in describing whether or not the hearts of the apostles were “burning” on this occasion, but it does cast the early Jewish disciples of “the Way” in a light that integrates them with overall Jewish religious and social participation. In the church, we tend to think of the “early Christians” as a body wholly apart from the various Judaisms that surrounded them, but as I’ve mentioned before, the Jews who were devoted to the Messiah as part of “the Way,” were just as much a valid sect of Judaism as any of the other Judaisms (Pharisees, Essenes, and so on) with which they co-existed.

In fact, the Jewish disciples of the Master in the days recorded by Luke in the book of Acts can only be separated from overall, normative Judaism anachronistically.

The King James Version of Acts 12:4 translates the Greek “pascha” as “Easter.”

The Greek word “pascha” (which transliterates the Hebrew “pesach”) occurs 27 times in the New Testament. In every instance except Acts 12:4, the King James translators rendered it as “Passover.” In Acts 12:4, they retained William Tynsdale’s anachronistic, Christian rendering and translated it as “Easter.”

The translation betrays a theological bias. It assumes Christianity replaced Judaism. Christ cancelled the Torah, and the Christian Jews would not have been keeping Passover any longer. In reality, the apostles had never heard of a festival called Easter. They had no special Christian festivals. They kept the Passover along with all Israel in remembrance of the Master, just as He had instructed them… (Luke 22:19)

-Lancaster, pg 338

Lancaster continues in his commentary, explaining that the separate Christian observance of Easter wouldn’t be established until the Second Century CE as the Gentile believers in Rome began to neglect observing Passover, but began to revere the Sunday that fell during the week of Unleavened bread as the day of Christ’s resurrection. As you can see, the passage of time and the demands of history have resulted in both Judaism and Christianity evolving and changing how they practice their divergent methods of worshiping God. In fact, the divergence of “the Way” from the rest of the Judaisms post-Second Temple is likely part of those historical requirements.

Is all this desirable? Probably not. That is, it would be great to have a Christianity that actually remained a normative part of Judaism and was able to include Gentile practitioners who came to faith in the Messiah, but such was not to be.

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.

Romans 11:25 (ESV)

Paul seems to be telling us that the schism between the Gentile and Jewish believers was inevitable for the sake of the Gentiles and that, referencing Isaiah 59 and Jeremiah 31, by doing so, all Israel will be saved. (see Romans 11:26-27)

If Judaism was practiced differently and in fact, in radically different ways between the ancient times of Moses, David, and Solomon, the time of the Babylonian exile, the time of Herod, the Second Temple, and the rise of “the Way,” and in the post-Second Temple rabbinic period, can we say that all of these Judaisms are “valid?” I don’t think we have much of a choice but to say that they are. If you disagree, then you have to point to some place in history and say “here’s where the Jews made their big mistake.” I know that many Christians will point to Jesus and say that the Jewish rejection of their own Messiah caused them to become lost and gave rise to the “age of the Gentiles,” but be careful. For the first fifteen years post-ascension, only Jews were disciples of Jesus Christ. Even after Peter’s fateful meeting with Cornelius and the subsequent mission of Paul to the Gentiles of the diaspora, Jews remained in total control of the “Jesus movement” within Judaism until the fall of Jerusalem and the scattering of the vast majority of the Jewish population among the nations (there has always been a remnant of Jews living in the Land). It is rumored that there were Jews in synagogues acknowledging Yeshua as Messiah into the second, third, and possibly even up to the fifth century CE or later.

Rabbi Joshua Brumbach wrote a blog post called Rabbis Who Thought for Themselves which records the lives of a number of prominent 19th century Rabbis who all came to the knowledge and faith of the Messiah in the person of Yeshua (Jesus), and we know of a remnant of Jews in the 21st century who also have come to faith and yet have lives that are completely consistent with modern Jewish halakhah.

At no one point in history will you find the quintessential moment where you can say “that is the true Judaism” or for that matter, “that is the true Christianity.” Humanity in all our forms has been struggling with our relationship with God, what it means, and how to live it out since the days when God walked with Adam in the Garden. We never get it quite right because we live in a broken world and our vision of who we are, who God is, and what it all means is fractured and distorted, even with the Spirit of God residing with us as a guide.

staring-at-the-cloudsWe can look at the mistakes we have made and are making even now, but we cannot say that “at such and thus time, we got it all right.” We never got it right, we just made different mistakes. But faith and devotion have been a constant thread running through the tapestry and that is what we can find tied to our own heartstrings. We can then grab hold of that thread and pull ourselves along the line, touching the lives of the saints and tzaddikim who came before us, who like us, got some things right and some things wrong, but who like us, did their very best to serve the God of Heaven.

It’s easy to point a finger at history and at men who have been dead for hundreds or thousands of years, and vilify them in order to make ourselves look better, but in reality, they were no different from us in the important ways of how human beings work. Our only constant is love of God and of each other. We look to God to be the unchanging part of our own ever-changing universe. And we wait for the day when King Messiah will stand before Israel in Jerusalem and before the body of believers from the nations, and read the Torah aloud, and we will all hear his voice, and we will all know that we are his.

50 Days: Lessons in Acts and Patience

Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”

And the high priest said, “Are these things so?”

Acts 6:9-14, 7:1 (ESV)

When Caiaphas asked Stephen “Are these charges true,” he in effect asked, “Are you and your sect speaking against Moses, against the Torah, and against the Temple?

The charges were serious, and the trial had ramifications for the entire Yeshua (Jesus) sect (of Judaism). As a community leader over the assembly of Yeshua’s disciples, Stephen represented the beliefs of the whole community. If the court found him guilty of blasphemy or apostasy, they might turn against the whole sect.

Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Toldot (“Generations”) (pp 141, 143)
Commentary on Acts 7:1-60

Last Sunday, at the local church I attend, Pastor Randy’s sermon, as he covers the book of Acts, was specifically on Acts 7:1-19. Since the portion of Acts covered by Volume 6 of the Torah club for this coming week’s Torah reading is Acts 7, I thought it would be a good opportunity to compare what is being taught about Stephen and his defense to the Sanhedrin in my church vs. FFOZ’s viewpoint on the same event to see the similarities and differences. I didn’t get what I was looking for. Here’s why as outlined in the printed conclusions of the Pastor’s sermon last week:

Conclusion: Stephen’s sermon helps us to remember…

  1. The sovereign activity of God in choosing people, places, and timing in all things.
  2. The sovereign, abundant grace of God toward rebellious sinners always.
  3. The danger of hardening our hearts against God’s grace.
  4. The error of going through outward motions where our hearts are far from God.

While D. Thomas Lancaster in his Torah club study and Pastor Randy in his sermon series are covering identical material from Acts, the purpose and focus in each of their teachings are not at all the same. Lancaster is addressing the issue of whether or not the charges against Stephen were true; was he really speaking against Moses, the Torah, and the Temple as he had been accused of? Pastor Randy, on the other hand, was using Stephen’s “sermon” (it was actually a legal defense and not a “sermon” as we understand the term in the church) as an illustration of God’s grace and mercy to sinners who repent and turn back to God.

Kind of like trying to compare apples and oranges.

Maybe that’s a good thing, because the Sunday school class I go to after services addresses (though tangentially) the content of the lesson from the Pastor. What if the Sunday school teacher asked if the charges against Stephen were true and I answered based on Lancaster?

Of course, the allegations were not true, but was there any basis at all to the charges?

Stephen presented a pro-Temple, pro-Torah apologetic which, in essence, affirmed his orthodoxy within normative Judaism. He cited the biblically based origin for the authority of Moses and the Torah, and he told the story of the origin of the Temple. He went on to make a case for Yeshua, declaring Him to be the “prophet like Moses” who, like Moses himself, suffered His people’s rejection. In the same way, he drew in the Temple theme as he pointed out that Israel’s historical compromises with paganism contrasted against the sanctity of the true Temple. By the end of his defense, he turned the tables around. The accused became the accuser. He claimed that just as the nation of Israel historically rejected Moses, broke the Torah, and compromised with idolatry, the Jewish leadership had committed a similar crime by rejecting the appointed Messiah. (Lancaster, pg 143)

Notice that Lancaster says that Stephen accused the “Jewish leadership” of rejecting the appointed Messiah, not the “Jewish people.” Since thousands upon thousands of Jews in Jerusalem had accepted Jesus as the Messiah in the weeks and months following Pentecost, it would be very difficult to say that the Jews en masse had rejected Jesus.

Lancaster says that the charges against Stephen were absolutely false, but we tend to hear a different message in Christianity (although no such message was presented in last week’s sermon at my church):

Commentators regard it…as an ironic twist that the so-called “false charges” were actually true. For example, F.F. Bruce (from Bruce’s book, “The Book of Acts,” 1988, pg 126) says, “They are called ‘false witnesses’ because, although their reports had a basis of truth, anyone who testifies against a spokesman of God is ipso facto a false witness.” Numerous Christian commentaries insist that, contrary to what Luke tells us, the witnesses were not really false nor were their allegations really lies. From a traditional Christian point of view, Stephen must have taught against the Temple with its obsolete sacrifices, against the Torah with its cancelled ceremonial laws, and against the customs, i.e., the traditions of men. (Lancaster, pg 142)

Remember that I said not too long ago, quoting Pastor Jacob Fronczak’s article, The Five Solas: Sola Scriptura:

Even with the Masoretic traditions, though, many English readings of the Scripture can be divined from a single Hebrew text. Translation committees have to pick one. Many times readings are chosen to emphasize some Messianic prophecy which appears to point to Jesus Christ, while a Jewish translation committee might choose a different readings for the exact opposite reason. Both readings might be technically correct. However doctrinal presuppositions dictate which reading is chosen. In effect, then, when Christians have only an English Bible and no other tools, they are completely unable to interact with the Scripture – the original Greek and Hebrew texts. They are completely dependent on the work of the translator.

If our doctrinal presuppositions dictate how a passage in scripture is rendered from its original language into English (or any other modern language), the same can be true for how we interpret scripture. Even reading the ESV Bible’s translation of Acts 7:1-60, there’s nothing in the plain meaning of the text that indicates Stephen must have been speaking against Moses, the Torah, and the Temple. In fact, the vast majority of his defense reads like a simple history lesson, compressing the relevant sections of the Tanakh (Old Testament) into a few paragraphs. Stephen doesn’t appear to be denigrating the Jewish Torah and traditions but rather defending them. He only accuses the Sanhedrin of going against the Torah and teachings of Moses, in violation of what Jesus himself taught and defended.

You can see why I might be a little hesitant to speak up in Sunday school later today as I did last week.

It’s another Sunday (as you read this) and church services start at 9:30 this morning. I’ll be there again, and I’ll go to Sunday school again, and I don’t really know what I’m going to say or do. Hopefully, nothing stupid, but there are no guarantees. I’ve said and done stupid things before, even when I knew better. Telling what I understand to be “the truth” is not always defensible if I know in advance that the result will be upsetting or harmful to others. Even if I chose to speak, I would have to do so in a way that was not accusatory or offensive to others.

There is a major difference between being critical, and having a positive influence on others by saying things with compassion and true caring. When you sound critical, the person on the receiving end is likely to deny your words, which will be perceived as an attack. And then you won’t accomplish anything.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #634, Correct Without Being Critical”
Aish.com

So far, the only person at church who even knows this blog exists is Pastor Randy, and I don’t even know if he has visited here since our first meeting last week. Since it’s not likely anyone else at church knows I write these “morning meditations,” I’m more at liberty to express my thoughts and opinions here than I should be when in Sunday school.

Of course, this is only the second Sunday I will be back in church. I really need to learn to be more patient and not “shoot off my big mouth” just because the Sunday school teacher asks a question and no one answers. Silence isn’t always in invitation for me to “make noise” nor is it a reason to think that I can “correct” anyone else in their beliefs.

Maybe I should be paying more attention to what the Bible is telling me about what I need to do to make me a better person than what I think it says about making others better.