Tag Archives: apostle Paul

Should Non-Jews Study the Torah?

“Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

Acts 15:19-21 (NASB)

So, should non-Jews who are “Judaicly aware” and seek to honor the centrality of Israel and the primacy of the Jewish people in Messiah study the Torah?

For most of you, the answer probably seems like a no-brainer. After all, the Torah, at least in one sense, is the first five books of the Bible, and Christians study the Bible every day.

On the other hand, should we study the Bible using Jewish, including Messianic Jewish, published materials?

Again, that might seem like a ridiculous question to most of you. After all, there are Messianic Jewish publishing groups that produce a vast amount of Torah study materials aimed right at the non-Jew. At least some of these works are designed to reach traditional Christians in their churches and illuminate them regarding the aforementioned centrality of Israel, and how King Messiah will come first to redeem Israel (and not “the Church”) and through Israel and the Jewish people, the people of the nations of the world.

But then we enter the “blurry” area of the status of a non-Jew within Jewish religious and community space through the use of Jewish produced (though some of it is written by non-Jews working for Jewish publishers) educational materials.

Let me get something out of the way first. I frequently read and quote from articles at Aish.com and Chabad.org and both of these websites provide information that is exclusively written by and for Jews.

Nevertheless, I find the insights provided by both these organizations to be helpful from time to time, but again, I am not unmindful of the fact that they are not intended to be consumed by a non-Jewish audience, namely me.

So let us return to the above-quoted passage from Acts 15 with which I began this missive. It’s part of the larger “Jerusalem letter,” the legal edict issued by the Council of Leaders and Elders of the Jewish Messianic sect once known as “the Way”. It was meant to be a formal and binding decision of the status of Gentiles within Jewish communal and covenantal space, outlining, albeit briefly and with little detail, a Gentile’s responsibilities within that context.

Over two-and-a-half years ago, I covered the content and my understanding of this legal decision in my multi-part series Return to Jerusalem (you can start at part 1 and click through to part 6 for the details).

Rolling the Torah ScrollOf specific interest for this “meditation” is the rather mysterious meaning of verse 21, which I touched upon in Part 5 of the “Jerusalem” series:

“For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

Acts 15:21

Although generally the Hebrew Roots movement interprets this single verse to mean that Gentiles should study the Torah and obey all of the mitzvot in the manner of the Jews, it’s not that easy to derive a definite and concrete interpretation from a single sentence.

Let’s consider not the Gentile God-fearers of that day who already were spending much time hearing Torah read and taught in their local synagogues, but the person who is a pagan Greek and who has just heard the good news of redemption though the Jewish Messiah. Many would have absolutely no background or appropriate context to even begin to fathom the teachings of Rav Yeshua or the Jewish apostles and disciples. They’d be clueless.

After all, it was in Lystra, where the population was largely ignorant of Jewish teachings, that Paul was considered to be Hermes and Barnabas Zeus because they did miracles. To counter this, Paul quickly gave the crowd a crash-course in ethical monotheism (see Acts 14:8-18), hoping to get them to see the light, so to speak.

To even begin to understand anything about what Paul was preaching, it was first necessary to have some sort of background in Judaism and the Torah. In fact, we see this example in the proselytes and Gentile God-fearers who heard Paul’s teachings on Messiah in the synagogue at Pisidan Antioch (see Acts 13:13-43).

Further, rather than just take Paul or any other Jewish teacher at his or her word, a knowledge of the scriptures was not only necessary, but vital. The Bereans (Acts 17:10-15) are the classic model of this principle. Of course, verse 10 does say that Paul and Silas went into “the synagogue of the Jews,” however verse 12 states “…many of them [Jews] believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men,” so it appears these prominent Greek women and men were at the synagogue, either studying the scriptures or listening to the Jewish Bereans do so, and thus benefiting from the study of Torah, including coming to faith because of these scriptural proofs.

But as I said above, Christians study the Bible every day, and yet (in my opinion) they do not always employ the correct hermeneutics that would render an interpretation of scripture largely consistent with what Paul intended to teach (or as close as we can get to it some two-thousand years later).

That’s why, like the Greeks in the Berean synagogue, it is not only helpful but necessary to study Torah with more knowledgable teachers who are familiar with a (again, my opinion) Messianic Jewish view of the Bible.

pathsBut Messianic Judaism isn’t a single entity. There are many different streams, and I’m not even including Hebrew Roots when I say this.

In the past, I’ve referenced quite a number of resources that the “Judaicly aware” Gentile may access including the MessianicGentiles.com website, so all you really have to do is search my blog and or click the link I just provided in order to get started.

But what about a non-Jew who has been studying from that perspective for a number of years and wants to dig a little deeper? After all, when an Orthodox Jew speaks of “studying Torah,” he or she is actually meaning “studying Talmud.” Is it permissible for a Gentile to study Talmud? While it’s not illegal, immoral, or even fattening, is there a benefit for us to study Talmud, especially when the sages wrote against Yeshua being Messiah and in some cases, wrote against Yeshua-believers?

The prohibitions against a Gentile studying Talmud (Torah) are from more traditional Jewish sources and not necessarily from any of the Messianic Jewish groups. Still, I found an interesting discussion on the topic in a closed group on Facebook (I can’t post a link both because you have to be invited to join and I don’t have the permission of the participants to do so).

Unless you are already a qualified scholar and have studied Talmud previously with a qualified scholar, you are going to get a very limited understanding from Talmud. Also, unless the tractates being read are speaking to the non-Jew, it’s again a matter of reading material written by Jews for Jews. In other words, even if you are at the educational level to comprehend what you are reading (which usually also requires fluency in Hebrew), the Talmud, for the most part, has nothing to do with you.

Of course, you could say that about the vast majority of the Bible, since most of it was written by Jews for Jews, but going back to the examples I’ve already presented from Luke’s “Acts of the Apostles,” we see that some form of study of the Jewish scriptures is absolutely necessary in order to understand the teachings of Rav Yeshua and of the Apostle Paul and how they apply to we non-Jewish disciples.

So although in-depth study of Talmud for the Gentile may be somewhat up in the air depending on education, circumstances, and communal context, more general study of all of the Jewish scriptures (and even the Apostolic Scriptures should be considered Jewish scriptures, although they include significant mention of Gentile initiates and disciples) seems not only warranted, but absolutely required.

So we’re back at what to do with a Gentile who finds it necessary to learn in a Messianic Jewish context? How is said-Gentile to be integrated, and more importantly, how does that Gentile not get swept up in Jewish practice and identity, but instead is able to establish and maintain an identity of their own, one that does not result in self-denigration or diminished esteem?

That is a question that has been under discussion for years, probably decades, and as far as I can tell, has no current, practical resolution. The emphasis in Messianic Judaism on Judaism, the centrality of Israel, and the primacy of the Jewish people in God’s redemptive plan is good and correct, but it contains the problem of what to actually do with the majority of the world’s population.

praying aloneWhich is why Gentiles need to find a way to study the Bible through a Messianic lens, so to speak, but also find a way to learn how and why we are important and loved by God, too.

I know this must seem like I’m beating the proverbial dead horse, but to the degree that non-Jews do sometimes feel alienated in Messianic Jewish space, to the degree that some factions of Messianic Judaism find it necessary to be a movement by and for Jews, and to the degree that some Gentiles become so confused between the goals of Judaism and the Messianic Kingdom that they choose to abandon Yeshua and convert to (usually Orthodox) Judaism to resolve their dissonance, I think the issue is significant.

Gentiles need to find a way to study the Bible in a manner honoring to the Jewish people and Israel and at the same time, one that renders a message of the value of non-Jews in God’s redemptive plan as well.

Ultimately, we can’t let a movement define who we are to God. We need to study the Bible and find out what we mean to God from Him…if we can.

Returning to God in Time for Sukkot

If Yom Kippur can also be a time of repentance and mourning for non-Jewish disciples of Yeshua (Jesus), then I suppose I’m late.

On the other hand, as PL recently commented:

That having been said, Sukkot is coming up, and you should probably give some consideration to how much you are willing to pursue practical enactments of the anticipated messianic era in which Zachariah envisioned the requirement for gentiles to celebrate Sukkot and the aspects of it that imply redemption for the nations. The above essay seems to indicate that you’ve pulled away too far, and perhaps that you’ve begun to acknowledge it.

I heard somewhere (I can’t recall the source thanks to my leaky memory) that if Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can mark a season of repentance and renewal for the Jewish people, then maybe Sukkot serves that purpose for the nations.

No, I’m not attempting to reintroduce myself into Jewish space, but I can’t ignore the (Biblical) fact that God also wants to include the Gentiles in the Kingdom of Heaven, that is, the Messianic Kingdom of redemption of the world. And while we are not nor shall we ever be Israel, there has to be a way to return to God that is appropriate for the non-Jew and that doesn’t involve directly (or maybe even indirectly, if such a thing is possible) using any form of Judaism as the Gentile’s conduit to repentance and reconciliation with God.

But where to begin?

Actually, I did begin and then stopped. I thought about looking at the practices of Yeshua and how he related to the Father as well as what Paul taught the Gentiles of his day, thinking this could provide some sort of baseline for the 21st century non-Jewish disciple of Rav Yeshua.

followBut while more traditional Christians have no trouble conceptualizing how to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the fact remains that the Master almost never interacted with non-Jews and when he did, he wasn’t always civil about it. Yeshua was (and is) a Jewish teacher who gathered a Jewish following in the first century of the common era, in the then Roman-occupied Holy Land. He came, at that place and time, for the lost sheep of Israel, not the lost sheep of the nations.

For the nations, Yeshua never came directly. For us, he sent Paul instead (Acts 9).

So what did Paul teach? The answer to that question would fill a book, probably many books, and many books have been written with Paul as their subject, some complementary (Christian) and some with disdain (Jewish). And almost certainly, the vast majority of those books got Paul and how he related to Jewish people, Judaism, and his Gentile pupils all wrong.

Probably one of the very few books that may have gotten Paul right, or at least come as close as we can given the Apostle lived and died nearly two-thousand years ago, was the Nanos and Zetterholm volume Paul Within Judaism (and I still owe Mark Nanos a book review on Amazon).

Don’t think that my returning here to write, even occasionally, means that I think myself worthy of being read. It absolutely doesn’t mean I think myself a teacher. But PL is right. In pulling away from the inevitable strife caused by the presence of a non-Jew (and particularly me) in Jewish space, specifically Messianic Jewish space, I’ve also pulled away from paying much attention to God.

In attempting to hack my 61-year-old body to perform younger at the gym and in more practical physical applications, I’ve used that effort to insulate me from “hacking” my relationship with God, particularly continual repentance and reconciliation.

At this late date in the Jewish High Holidays, there’s no way I can even beg the forgiveness of all those I’ve upset and offended online and in person, but I’ll take this opportunity to humble myself before all of you anyway.

I’m still covered in “filthy rags” as it were. Still in need of a lot of work. I’ve always known that, but the issues over a busted computer (long story) and various other stressors this weekend have brought that realization to the forefront.

I know now that as flawed and imperfect as I am, what kept me moving forward or at least prevented me from moving backward, was writing this blog. Even as I kept falling on my face time after time, each new blog post was my effort to pull myself back up and keep on running the race (with apologies to the writer of Hebrews 12:1-3).

unworthySo I’m telling you that I’m not a better person, at least not better than I was a month, two months, or six months ago. I’ve taken some steps to cull a few of the more negative influences I’ve encountered in the blogosphere and in social media, if for no other reason, than to reduce the level of conflict I experience, but I don’t think I’ve benefited significantly from that as yet.

So where does that leave me?

Non-Jewish disciples of Jesus find their home (this is a generalization, not an absolute statement) in more or less one of two places: Most of them find a home in some sort of Christian church. No surprise there. A significant minority find their home in either an expression of Messianic Judaism or in some version of Hebrew Roots.

None of that helps me.

What’s left?

Well, even if I found myself on a deserted island somewhere thousands of miles from anyone else, there would still be God.

Assuming in a communal and spiritual sense, that’s actually my situation, what’s to be done?

The answer returns me to the Apostle Paul and what he taught. If Jewish avenues of connection aren’t available to me in forging a relationship with God, then Paul certainly must have taught his Gentile students how they could turn to Hashem.

How did they?

Here’s what little I have so far. I put this together a few months ago:

What Did Paul Teach?

What we do/don’t do:

  • Gentiles weren’t to be circumcised.
  • Gentiles weren’t to convert to Judaism.
  • Cornelius prayed at the set times of prayer.
  • Cornelius gave charity to the Jewish people.
  • Paul preached that the Gentiles owed charity to the poor of Israel.
  • Pray for Jerusalem.
  • The Jewish PaulExamples 1 Cor 5:11 and 13. Purge evil from among you and no slander or backbiting.
  • Practice repairing the world a little every day.
  • Restore Jesus and Paul and their teachings to their original Jewish context.
  • Teach the centrality of Israel in the restoration of the world.

Who we are:

  • Gentiles can call Abraham their Father (Rom. 4:11).
  • [Many of the contributors of the Nanos/Zetterholm volume say that Gentile believers had an “anomalous identity” and “occupied a social and religious no-man’s land”. Gentile identity defies classification.]
  • Gentile believers are neither proselytes nor God-fearers.
  • Like converts, we make an exclusive commitment to the God of Israel, but unlike converts, we do not take on Jewish ancestral practices (kosher food, shabbat, circumcision, and so on).
  • While we retain our native ethnic identities, we no longer worship our native gods.
  • Paul saw us as part of Abraham’s seed (Gen. 17:4-5, Gal. 3:29, Rom. 4:13-18), and yet Israel is also Abraham’s seed.
  • Nanos says we are not guests nor proselytes but full members alongside the Jews (members in what…the Kingdom of Heaven probably).

All this is pretty disorganized and needs a lots of fleshing out.

While I’ve missed the boat as far as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are concerned, it’s still not too late to at least get back on the road in time for Sukkot (what most Christians think of as the “Festival of Booths”).

I apologize for involving Jewish online resources, but in a lot of cases, I have no choice since Paul operated on this calendar and, as PL pointed out in the above-quoted statement, even we Gentiles will be operating within such a calendar or observance in Messianic Days.

walking outPreviously, I’ve drawn some ire, both in blog comments and via email, by citing or quoting from specific Messianic Jewish resources that were written for a non-Jewish audience in mind, so I’m going to do my best to avoid mentioning them as I chronicle my journey of return.

That’s regrettable, since a lot of how I understand my relationship with God, Paul, Yeshua, and the centrality of Israel (and not the Church) in national Israel’s redemption and the redemption of the world through her, is from those resources.

But one of my goals for this blog (it always has been actually) is to not promote conflict. Sometimes the only way to avoid conflict is to avoid interacting with some people and groups who, unfortunately, I have a tendency to irritate and provoke (and I apologize and ask forgiveness of all those folks too, but even if they forgive me, repentance and forgiveness don’t automatically mean reconciliation…sometimes, you just can’t go home).

I don’t want “morning meditations” to be like so many other blogs in the online religious space that go out of their way to generate conflict, disagreement, and even raw hostility.

I’m not teaching, declaring, or demanding. I’m just sharing my personal and spiritual experiences (such as they are) day by day (or perhaps more periodically).

What did Paul teach his Gentile disciples and how can I apply (if it’s possible) that to my own life? What can I learn from those few other non-Jews, such as Cornelius, who worshiped God outside of Judaism and within their own non-Jewish households?

Since the Jewish Messiah and becoming his disciple (through the teachings of Paul) is at the core of this exploration, I don’t know that any examples of non-Jews we see in the Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament) are relevant or even appropriate.

NoahOne notable example might be Noah, since he preceded any notion of Judaism and was considered “a righteous man, blameless in his time,” and “Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9 NASB).

Noah prayed to God, God spoke with Noah, Noah obeyed God, and Noah sacrificed to God, so what he did (apart from building an Ark and gathering a bunch of animals together) isn’t entirely out of the ballpark.

But for the most part, I’ll be spending my time in the Apostolic Scriptures, hoping some vestige of these ancient trails can point me to my way home as well.

The Humble Desert

This is the second of two blog posts I wrote several weeks ago. I don’t know when or if I’ll write anymore.

Ohr HaChaim explains the first verse in Sefer Devarim in a novel way: He says that Moshe was alluding to nine attributes that are necessary for those who go in the path of the Torah.

-from “A Mussar Thought for the Day,” p.132
Sunday’s commentary for Parashas Devarim
A Daily Dose of Torah

Although this commentary was written for a Jewish audience, we non-Jews in Messiah who seek his Kingdom may glean some insights into the necessary attributes for us to turn to Hashem, God of Israel, in repentance and humility.

The following is a truncated version of this list of nine attributes. For the full text, go to pp. 132-133 of the aforementioned portion of A Daily Dose of Torah

  1. The word “on the other side,” is an allusion that one should acquire the trait of Avraham, as it says (Bereshis 14:13) “and told Abram, the Ivri…” [The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 42:13) says that our forefather Avraham was called the “Ivri” because he was on one side…of the world, and the rest of humanity was on the other. The Eitz Yosef (ad loc.) explains that this refers to Avraham’s recognition of his Creator, challenging the status quo of his time, when idolatry was the norm.]
  2. A person should constantly have self-reproof in mind, as the Gemara says (Berachos 7a): “One self-reproof in a person’s own heart is better (for his self-improvement) than 100 lashes.”
  3. One should be humble, as the Gemara says (Eruvin 54a): A person should conduct himself as if he were but a humble desert…
  4. One’s humility should follow the proper course as delineated in Rambam (Hilchos Dei’vos Ch. 5). [Rambam writes at length there about the proper conduct one should display, both in public and private.]
  5. The Mishnah (Avos 3:1) says that two of the things one should remember so as not to come to sin are that a person ends up buried in the ground, and that he will have to stand in judgment before Hashem for all his deeds. In Avos 2:10, the Mishnah tells us to repent every day, lest one die without repentance.
  6. The virtuous say (Chovos HaLevavo, Shaar HaPerishus 4) that one should be outwardly cheerful and inwardly mournful.
  7. One should have a pure and clean heart, as Dovid HaMelech prays in Tehillim (51:12), “A pure heart create for me, O God.” One should distance himself from hatred, jealousy, strife and bearing grudges.
  8. One should regularly learn Torah, as it is stated about our forefather Yaakov (Bereshis 25:27): “Yaakov was a wholesome man, dwelling in tents,” which refers to the study tents of Shem and Eiver (Rashi ad loc.).
  9. One should not passionately pursue things that seem valuable, meaning, the wealth of the physical world, because one who is following his heart’s desires is not doing God’s work.

How can this be applied to the non-Jew in Messiah? We can only look to those texts in our Bible, enshrined in the Apostolic Scriptures, that describe what is required of us through Messiah as a result of his humble birth, his life among Israel, his death at the hands of the goyim, his miraculous resurrection, and triumphant ascension.

MessiahThere are two general models by which we non-Jews may learn our proper behavior as disciples and perhaps look to the above-listed nine attributes: The behaviors of our Master, Rav Yeshua, that we find recorded in the Gospels, and what the Apostle Paul taught, as well as mitzvot we see the righteous Gentiles of that time performing, also chronicles in the Apostolic Scriptures.

Let’s take another list of those nine attributes and see if they make any sense when applied to a Gentile disciple of the Master.

  1. To be separate from the rest of mankind. Are we Christians “called out” from the mass of general humanity to be something special to God?
  2. To constantly reproof ourselves. Reproof is just a fancy word meaning rebuke, reprimand, reproach, or admonition. Applied to a believer who sins (and who doesn’t sin, even among the redeemed Gentiles?), we should be our own worst critics, for self-reproof is better than being “called out” because of our sins by others.
  3. To be humble. Looking at Eruvin 54, the relevant portion states: “If a person makes himself [humble] like a wilderness on which everyone tramples, [Torah is given to him like a Matanah (gift),] and his learning will endure. If not, it will not.”
  4. I don’t have access to Rambam’s lengthy discourse on humility, so no illumination will come from his insights, at least not in this small write-up.
  5. Avos 3:1 seems pretty self-explanatory. Once you fully realize that you are mortal, an end will come, and you will stand in judgment before a righteous and just God, should you continue to sin? And yet we do all the time. How wretched we are.
  6. Outwardly cheerful and inwardly mournful. Sounds like Matthew 6:16.
  7. In order to have a pure and clean heart, we would have to be in a constant state of repentance, which seems pretty consistent with what we’ve read so far.
  8. Regularly learn Torah. That fits in with what we generally assume about Acts 15:21 but, if we expand that idea to regularly studying the Bible, and all Bible learning could be considered “Torah” or “teaching” in a way, then why couldn’t we benefit from this?
  9. What is most important to us? A nice house? An expensive car? Watching the most recent superhero movies in the theaters? What did the Master teach in Matthew 22:36-40? What did he teach in Matthew 6:19-21?

The Jewish PaulAlthough the Master appointed the Pharisee Paul to be the emissary to the Gentiles, and tasked him to bring the Good News of Messiah to the people of the nations of the world, Paul was not commanded to convert those Gentiles into Jews. Although Paul brought many non-Jews into Jewish social and worship contexts to teach them to understand such foreign (to them in those days) concepts as a monotheistic view of One God, who and what “Messiah” is and what he means, and what the “good news” is to Israel and how it can be applied to the rest of the world, at some point, he had to realize based on the sheer number of Gentiles in the world in relation to the tiny number of Jews, that the Gentiles would quickly develop their own communities, congregations, and perhaps their own customs, halachah, and praxis, independent of direct (or even indirect) Jewish influence. The tiny Apostolic Council of Jerusalem couldn’t hope to administer a world wide population of Gentiles.

Two-thousand or so years later, Christianity and Judaism, having traveled along widely divergent paths, seem like an apple and an orange trying to find common ground and not doing a very good job of it. Judaism isn’t what links Jews and Gentiles in Messiah. Judaism is what links Jews to other Jews. It’s what links Jews to Torah. It’s what links Jews to Israel.

Judaism isn’t what teaches the apple and the orange that they are both fruit (assuming you’ve seen the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding). The promise of living in the Kingdom of Heaven, otherwise known as the Kingdom of God, or even the Messianic Era…this is what we have in common, all of us, all of humanity…all people everywhere, or at least those who make teshuvah, turn to God, and who answer the call to be redeemed.

But Jews are part of the Kingdom by covenant. The path for the rest of us is more complicated, at least once you set aside the notion we’ve been taught out of a truncated Gospel, the notion commonly taught in most Christian churches.

Although Messianic Judaism in its various modern incarnations is a very good place to learn about how God’s redemptive plan for Israel, and through Israel, the rest of the world, is really supposed to work, it can also (and certainly has in many cases) lead a lot, or many, or most non-Jews associated with Messianic Judaism to some very confusing conclusions.

Learning from within a Jewish context of one sort or another is valuable, but none of that means we non-Jews are supposed to consider Judaism a permanent destination. Our destination lies elsewhere.

Yeshua’s (Jesus’) central message was Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near, not “Believe in me and you’ll go to Heaven when you die.”

Sadly enough, Christianity widely teaches that Paul’s central message was “humans are saved from sin by believing in Jesus.” So either Paul completely turned the good news of Messiah on its head, so to speak, or Christianity totally misunderstands Paul.

For people like me, that is, non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah, it is vital to comprehend what the Master taught about the Kingdom and then see how Paul interpreted those teachings as applying to the people of the nations. Only understanding that gives me a clear picture of the actual context in which God expects people like me to operate and what I’m supposed to do with all this information.

Apostle Paul preachingI shouldn’t have to look far. Paul’s discourse to the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch where he addressed Jews, proselytes, and non-Jewish God-fearers should tell the tale and show us what he taught that so excited the Gentiles.

As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people kept begging that these things might be spoken to them the next Sabbath. Now when the meeting of the synagogue had broken up, many of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, were urging them to continue in the grace of God.

The next Sabbath nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began contradicting the things spoken by Paul, and were blaspheming. Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us,

‘I have placed You as a light for the Gentiles,
That You may bring salvation to the end of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).’”

When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region.

Acts 13:42-49 (NASB)

You should read all of Acts 13 for the full context, keeping in mind that Luke probably wrote down only a short summary of Paul’s complete address to the synagogue.

We do know that Paul advocated for redemption of the Gentiles through Israel’s redemption, and that the news among the Gentile God-fearers was so well received during Paul’s first Shabbat visit, that multitudes of non-Jews, most of whom were probably not God-fearers and in fact, most of whom were likely straight-up pagans, enthusiastically showed up on the next Shabbat, dismaying the synagogue leaders to the extreme, but attracting a lot of excited Gentiles to the “good news.”

That good news wasn’t Judaism. The local Gentiles always knew that they could undergo the proselyte rite to convert to Judaism (and some few of them actually did). Paul wasn’t preaching for all Gentiles to convert, he was preaching the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven, where all people could receive the Spirit of God, could be reconciled to the Creator of the Universe, and receive the promise of the resurrection and a place in the World to Come.

This was as open to the Gentiles as it was to any Jew.

Verse 38 of the same chapter says that Messiah proclaimed forgiveness of sins (through teshuvah or repentance) to even the Gentiles, something most of the Goyim (and probably most Jews) hadn’t even considered possible before, especially within their polytheistic family and social framework.

The synagogue was where Gentiles had to go, at least initially, because that was the only place in town where anyone taught anything about the God of Israel and the meaning of Messiah’s message. Like I said, Judaism isn’t the final destination for the Gentile. It was and perhaps sometimes still is the place we need to go in order to learn that our final destination is the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s where we need to focus our attention.

alone-desertIf we get too caught up in trying to “belong” to Judaism, we are either going to become frustrated when it doesn’t work out that way, or offended and angry when Jews in Messiah see we Gentiles as interlopers and poachers of their territory.

In some ways, that’s probably what caused a lot of the problems in Gentile integration into Jewish social and community circles that we find in Luke’s “Acts” and Paul’s epistles.

Rather than trying to bulldoze my way into Messianic Judaism, I’m determined to become a humble desert, to be the dust under everyone’s feet. In the siddur, it says “To those who curse me let my soul be silent, and let my soul be like dust to everyone.”

All I can do is to continually repent before the Throne of God, try to live my life in humility, and seek to behave in a manner pleasing to my Master so that one day I may enter the Kingdom…

…even if it is like dust seeping in through the doorway.

The Torah states, “You shall trust wholeheartedly in the Lord, Your God” (Deuteronomy 18:13).

Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chaim, used to say, “The Torah obliges us to trust wholeheartedly in God … but not in man. A person must always be on the alert not to be cheated.”

The Chofetz Chaim devoted his life to spreading the principle of brotherly love, the prohibition against speaking against others, and the commandment to judge people favorably. Though he was not the least bit cynical, he was also not naive. He understood the world and human weaknesses.

In Mesichta Derech Eretz Rabba (chapter 5) it states that we should honor every person we meet as we would (the great sage) Rabbi Gamliel, but we should nevertheless be suspicious that he might be dishonest.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
as quoted at Aish.com

Book Review of Paul Within Judaism, The Question of Identity: Gentiles as Gentiles–but also Not–in Pauline Communities

I have long puzzled over how to understand the gentiles in Paul, both from his perspective and their own perspective. I operate under the assumption that he is writing primarily to them and his goal is to articulate and manage just how they are connected to Israel through Christ. In the process, as I have discussed elsewhere, both he and they undergo various transformations in identity, changes that, I maintain, never separate him from Judaism and that affiliate gentiles with Israel but not as full members. They are not Jews and, in my view, they are not Christians…

-Caroline Johnson Hodge
Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm, Editors
“The Question of Identity: Gentiles as Gentiles–but also Not–in Pauline Communities”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

More than the previous essays I’ve reviewed from this volume, this one speaks in detail not only to the identity issues involved in being a “Gentile in Christ” in the time of the Apostle Paul, but also to those of us who call ourselves “Messianic Gentiles” today.

For the vast majority of mainstream Christians in churches, this identity conundrum does not exist. Being “Christians” is self-defining and self-explanatory and perhaps anachronistically, they believe they have direct one-to-one connectedness of identity with Paul’s own Gentiles. According to Hodge, nothing could be further from the truth, or at least further from the facts.

Many scholars use the term “Christian” for these gentile believers, even though there is fairly widespread agreement that it is anachronistic. There are good reasons not to use it: Paul does not use it himself…

At the scholarly level, it may well be agreed that Paul did not consider the Gentile disciples “Christians” nor that there is much, if any, comparison between the ancient ekklesia and the modern Church. Nevertheless, at the level of the local church and the local Pastor, I have heard it preached, specifically to Acts 20, that there are close comparisons that can be made between ancient believers and today’s Christian in the pew.

This is another case of the lag between academic discourse and what most Christians hear preached from the pulpit. It’s not so much because these Pastors are unaware of new research, but that such information does not make a good fit, either with the Pastors’ theology and doctrine or what would be accepted by their parishioners.

According to Hodge, Paul calls his Gentile disciples “beloved, holy ones, faithful ones, brothers and sisters, and a new creation,” but if they weren’t “Christians,” who were they?

She argues that defining their identity remains somewhat elusive and that these “gentiles occupy an in-between space, hovering around the borders of identities that they are not quite.”

ChurchThat’s not particularly satisfying but I know exactly how that “hovering” feels in my personal and congregational experience in various Messianic communities, or at least those few I’ve had the opportunity to visit.

Hodge’s line of pursuit in attempting to examine this “identity problem” is to trace how Paul “draws upon Jewish conceptions of gentiles, especially where they approach the boundaries of Jewish identity.”

Is it possible that there’s more than one kind of Gentile? According to Hodge, in the late Second Temple period when Paul was operating, there were two broad categories.

There’s the Jewish concept of the “generic” Gentile, that is, anyone who isn’t Jewish is a Gentile, regardless of how differentiated people from one culture or nation may be from another.

Then there are Gentiles in Christ, the disciples made by Paul and others.

And in Paul’s usage, this term has a doubleness to it in that there are two kinds of gentiles. First, there are the audiences of his letters, whom he addresses explicitly as gentiles in a number of places (Rom. 1:5-6, 13; 11:13; 15:6). Second, there are all the other gentiles who are not in Christ, the sort of gentiles that believers used to be.

That narrows things down but only a little. This believing group of Gentiles used to be, but no longer are, like the generic not-in-Christ Gentiles that populate the world. They used to be them but now they’re something else, occupying “a kind of liminal space between being those kinds of gentiles and now these kind of gentiles.”

Some of the characteristics of “these kinds of gentiles” in Christ include rejecting “idolatry and sexual immorality and [to] practice self mastery in holiness and honor.'”


Elsewhere Paul describes this as the life of the spirit, which they receive at baptism, so that, Paul says, “the just requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4). But he is adamant that they not keep Jewish Law, especially with respect to circumcision for male gentiles. Indeed, gentiles-in-Christ are not quite gentiles and not quite Jews.

This level of ambiguity may have ultimately been unsustainable and resulted in the eventual schism between the Christ-believing Gentiles and the Messiah-believing Jews, although Hodge doesn’t address this point in her essay.

Who am IShe does say that while remaining gentiles, these non-Jewish believers did participate in Jewish community and Jewish practices, behaving “Jewishly” but not being Jewish, as Mark Nanos has previously stated.

In fact, there may have been “a sliding scale of gentile participation in Judaism” such that there was no one fixed standard for the behavior of non-Jews in Jewish community and worship space.

I hope I’m not being anachronistic in applying this to those modern “Messianic Gentiles” who operate within Jewish spaces such as Beth Immanuel (although arguably, Beth Immanuel could be recognized as a Gentile space that behaves very “Jewishly”) and Tikvat Israel. From personal observation, I’ve seen a wide degree of variability in just how “Jewish” many non-Jews behave within these communities and elsewhere.

Perhaps this isn’t a matter of a lack of accepted standards for Gentiles, but a reflection of the necessity of process for non-Jews in community with Jews.

Hodge approaches her investigation from two avenues: one that uses the logic of lineage and the other one that uses the logic of purity.

Seed of Abraham

Hodge cites Ezra, particularly Ezra 9, and Jubilees chapter 30 to illustrate how purity of lineage was used to create a strong distinction between the Jewish people and the rest of the world, effectively excluding Gentiles from community with Israel. Not just the priests, but each individual Jew was defined as “holy unto the Lord,” set apart, unique, special, particularly from the goyim.

Furthermore, Jubilees uses the holy seed idea to distinguish between gentiles and Jews. Although gentiles number among Abraham’s seed…

…they are not part of the holy seed that belongs with God…

And that holy seed that belongs with God” began with the progeny of Abraham’s son Isaac. It is of this holy lineage which Jubilees refers to as a “kingdom of priests.”

Paul uses the same argument, only leveraging it for Gentile inclusion rather than exclusion. His rather unique interpretation states that in the promise that Abraham will be the father to many nations, and that this promise was made before the giving of the Torah, the Gentiles-in-Christ inherit the role of “Abraham’s seed” due to the faithfulness of Messiah.

As I have discussed at length elsewhere, baptism in Paul is a ritual adoption, creating a kinship relationship between gentiles and Abraham (Gal. 3; Rom. 4)…

Indeed, one of these promises, foretold by Scripture to Abraham long ago, is that, “All the gentiles (ethnê) will be blessed in you” (Gal. 3:8; Gen. 12:3; 18:18).

Paul’s own creative interpretation of Scripture allows him to claim that these ethnê mentioned in Genesis are those gentiles who have been baptized into Christ. We should not be surprised at their inclusion in God’s plan; they were present in Abraham’s body at the time of the blessing.

puritySo, according to how I’m reading Hodge, Paul was employing not so much a literal interpretation of scripture, but using widely sweeping metaphors, his own personal midrash, to make linkages between Abraham and the Christ-believing Gentiles. Once having undergone baptism as a symbolic rite of adoption, a new kinship was formed between the faithful Gentiles and the Jews in Messiah.

However, the term “adoption” should not be assumed to be the same as the legal process in modern American courts whereby a child who is not biologically produced by two married people becomes legally indistinguishable from any children born to the marital couple.

Although the “Messianic Gentiles” who are “adopted” through the rite of baptism are equally “in Christ” with their Jewish counterparts, equally apprehending the blessings of the New Covenant, such as the Holy Spirit and promise of the resurrection, Hodge emphasized repeatedly that this “adoption” did not make the gentiles Jewish nor did it in any sense obligate them to observe the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews.

Paul’s rather complex metaphorical language in his epistles was necessary to articulate a concept that even today is not well understood. Just how are Gentiles included in any of the blessings of a covenant God made exclusively with Israel? The “Abraham connection” is the key, but even then, as we continue to discover through Hodge’s article, exactly who and what we Gentiles are in Christ remains a puzzle, at least in the details.

Holy Bodies

The second tact Hodges employes is the sense of the Gentiles being set apart in Christ, being holy and in need of protection.

Paul does not develop a concept of a holy seed, but he does develop the idea of holy bodies for gentile believers. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul offers a “before and after” assessment of the Corinthians…

Earlier in this review, I mentioned two types of gentiles in Paul’s day, believing vs. non-believing gentiles:

Here Paul seems to refer to their baptism with the term “washed,” implying that he understands it as a purifying rite that brings the gentiles into right relationship with God. In this passage and in others that similarly mark the baptized gentiles as now holy…


As priestly bodies are “holy to the Lord,” Corinthian bodies “belong to the Lord” and not to porneia (1 Cor. 6:13, 19-20).

…so Corinthians are “members of Christ” (6:15) and must protect this holy body.

fragmented-bodyFrom Hodge’s perspective, the believing Gentiles in Corinth underwent “a material transformation that makes them into the Jewish body of Israel’s messiah.” Citing Benny Liew, she further states, “…on this multiethnic mixture, ‘Paul is engineering here nothing less than an inter-racial/ethnic bodily substitution….The Corinthian body…is, in other words, built on and through a racial/ethic other…'”

That’s a little difficult for me to get my brain around and it doesn’t seem to clear up who we “Messianic Gentiles” are supposed to be except that we are neither fish nor fowl, so to speak. The bottom line of this section of Hodge’s essay is that Gentiles in Messiah have a “holy, mixed identity.”

Gentiles as a Part of Israel’s Story

According to Hodge, the “seed of Abraham” argument and the “purity” discourse serve two separate rhetorical purposes. The Galatians “seed” commentary was focused primarily on explaining why Gentiles are not required to observe the Torah mitzvot as do the Jews. This is because their/our identity as “gentiles-in-Christ” and how we become part of Israel’s story is through Abraham and before Moses and the Sinai event. We are recipients of the promise to be Abraham’s children from the nations who can only fulfill that promise by remaining Gentiles.

While the Jews have a very specific set of responsibilities defining their identity, it’s not so clear what the obligations of the believing Gentiles are except:

In 1 Corinthians, Paul responds to competing ideas about how to live this new life in Christ. Throughout his letter he tries to control gentile bodies, urging harmony, cooperation, and self control. These persuasive aims are responsible at least in part for the ways Paul portrays gentile identity in each.

That’s bound to be a little disappointing to modern Messianic Gentiles who are hoping for something a little more codified. Nevertheless, we do have the general guidepost of separating ourselves from other, non-believing Gentiles and from our former lives, in order to live a life in Messiah that is pure, decent, and sanctified, being inhabited by the “pneuma” of Christ. We are called to worship the God of Israel as Gentiles and not as Israel. This was non-negotiable for Paul.

…when Christ returns to establish God’s kingdom, it is necessary for Israel and the gentiles to worship God not as one people, but as separate peoples–now worshipping together, as expected in the awaited age. Paul is clear in Romans 9-11, where he lays out this larger plan, that Jews and gentiles remain separate.

Rethinking the Question

maskSo, what is the real question?

If my analysis has shown that Paul’s portrayal of gentiles as mixed or ambiguous makes some sense in Jewish context of eschatological expectation, it simultaneously raises some important cautions about the concepts of identity. My initial question–who are the gentiles?–itself assumes that there is an answer…

But what if there isn’t an answer? What does that mean for Yeshua-believing Gentiles in Jewish communities today?

Hodge raises two problems. The first is that any assumption about the answer presumes an identity that is overly simplistic. While a nice, neatly wrapped gift of well-defined Gentile identity might be satisfying, it could also sell who we are in Messiah short, denying the complexity of our role and function in the Messianic ekklesia.

The other problem is that such an assumption confuses the strategies of the speaker, that is Paul, with a description of reality.

Remember, I called Paul’s letters an exercise in metaphorical or midrashic writing. Such commentaries are not meant to be taken in an overly literal manner, and yet much of Christian exegetical tradition does just that. If we’re attempting to build a literal model out of metaphorical material, no wonder we have chronically misunderstood Paul in the Church.

Hodge states:

…his [Paul’s] rhetoric is prescriptive, not descriptive, and his goal is to coax the gentiles to think and behave in certain ways.

Citing Brubaker, Hodge writes:

…that ethnic identity should be viewed as a process, a perspective on the world, rather than a thing that exists independent of human arguments.

I read that as Messianic Gentiles not having a fixed, static identity in Jewish space but rather, we are in the process of becoming, not just being. Also, that identity likely flexes depending on our specific circumstances and our relationship to Jewish community.

In the ancient world, there were “myriad social formations” that contributed to identity and I don’t think anything has changed relative to Gentile identity in Jewish space. While Galatians 3:28 defines both Jew and Gentile as “one in Christ,” that “oneness” does not imply identical identity in any manner. It does define a place where Jew and Gentile meet and whereby we take on a shift in identity from who we Gentiles were without God to who we are now with God.

But God is a God of Israel as well as the world and when a Jew comes to faith in Messiah, he/she changes less than does the Gentile.

The Jewish PaulThe Jew already has an identity with God as defined through the covenants. Faith in Messiah is the next step in the revelation of God to Israel, a continuation along the same, straight line. For the Gentile, the change in identity is radical to the extreme. Everything we were before as individuals and as people groups undergoes transformation. In ancient days, a lot of that transformation borrowed from Jewish praxis simply because no other model was available.

But now, as it existed then, Gentiles in Jewish community remain Gentiles and behave “Jewishly” on a sliding scale of behavior depending on role and circumstances, but still only vaguely defined. Being a Messianic Gentile is a continual journey of discovery, not a destination where we can hope to arrive, at least anytime soon.

I’ve found Hodge’s article thoroughly enjoyable and hopefully you will find it equally illuminating. Being Gentiles-in-Messiah isn’t about who we are but who we are becoming. Each day is new and we are new with the coming dawn.

Judaism is not all or nothing; it is a journey where every step counts, to be pursued according to one’s own pace and interest.

-from the Ask the Rabbi column

Reflections on Romans 8

I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.

Romans 7:21-25 (NASB)

If you’ll recall from my previous Reflections on Romans 7, I said that Paul didn’t write his epistle with chapters and verses in mind, so at the end of chapter 7, he was still probably in the middle of a thought. Let’s continue with that thought.

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Romans 8:1-8

Paul, like the rest of us, is a man caught between his inclinations of the flesh and the righteousness of God. He doesn’t do what he wants to do which is the right thing, but finds himself doing what he doesn’t want to do, which is disobeying God. What can save him but only the blood sacrifice of Messiah, the Righteous Tzaddik whose death atoned for the sins of many; who inaugurates the New Covenant which is a time when the righteous Word of God will be written on hearts and all sins will be forgiven.

So Paul I think is justified (no pun intended) when he says “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” not that we should continue sinning due to “hyper-grace” (see my forthcoming review of Rabbi Joshua Brumbach’s book Jude: Faith and the Destructive Influence of Heresy for more on this topic), but that in striving and often failing to meet God’s expectation, in contrite repentance, we are forgiven.

Paul continues to compare and contrast the “law of the Spirit of life” and the “law of sin and death”, but this time he says that the former has set us free from the latter, not that our human natures are changed yet, but they will be, and we can choose to live as if our hearts are changed now and as if the “law of the Spirit of life” is fully and permanently written on our hearts.

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh…

Romans 8:3

On one of Pete Rambo’s blog posts, I commented that the Torah is a delight but that even though God fully expected the Israelites to always observe the mitzvot, it was also a burden because of human frailty and weakness. My sometimes “sparring partner” Zion criticized my opinion, but frankly, I believe there would be no need for a New Covenant if human beings could naturally obey God and never sin.

Here, in the above quoted verse from Romans 8, we see what I think is a clear reference to this process, God doing what people can’t do…making it possible (or creating a process in which it is slowly becoming possible) for people, specifically Israelites and their descendants, the modern-day Jewish people, to fully observe the mitzvot and obey the commandments through the New Covenant promises and that covenant’s mediator, the Messiah, the Christ.

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh…

Romans 8:3

The Torah could outline all of God’s requirements for the Jewish people and the nation of Israel, but in and of itself, Torah cannot enable broken, imperfect human beings to attain God’s righteous perfection. That’s why a New Covenant is necessary, not to replace the requirements of the Torah so that the Israelites would have a much easier or watered down set of standards, but to “fix” people, so that their/our hearts and spirits would become (are becoming) so different that they would be enabled to naturally obey the statues of God, “so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4).

walking_discipleSo for human beings who are walking in the flesh and attempting to observe the Torah, that observance is going to be imperfect. However, those walking in the (New Covenant) Spirit will be able to perfectly obey God and not sin, at least after the resurrection when the New Covenant is fully enacted and people really do have new hearts and spirits.

…because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Romans 8:7-8

People have a choice to make now where before, apparently, they (we) didn’t, or at least that choice was much more difficult. In Messiah through the Spirit, they (we) can choose to walk by that Spirit in obedience (to those Laws that apply to us depending on whether we are Jewish or Gentile disciples of the Master), or we can continue to set our minds on the flesh and continue to be hostile toward God in our natures, even as another part of us seeks to obey Him. We must, according to Paul, subject ourselves to the law of God, though those people who are still in the flesh, that is, their human natures, are unable to do so.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous…

1 John 2:1

Paul goes on to assure his readers that they are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, that is, if the Spirit dwells in them at all. If it does, it is an indication that the New Covenant age has begun which allows Jews and Gentiles to receive the Spirit (Acts 2; Acts 10) impartially and with equal access. Spiritual man can override natural man, not that we don’t still have our human natures, but we can choose to overcome those natures by the Spirit’s power.

But we have to choose…it’s not automatic, and the battle goes on daily.

He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

Romans 8:11

Paul is continuing to present the New Covenant promises with this clear reference to the resurrection. So just as God raised Jesus (Yeshua) from the dead, so too will He raise us through the Holy Spirit.

For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.

Romans 8:14-17 

Those who receive the Spirit, which must be both Jews and Gentiles, are adopted as sons of God and entitled to cry out to Him “Abba! Father!” If we live the life of the Master, if we are obedient and are willing to suffer for his sake and not pursue the flesh for our own, then we prove that we are indeed sons and daughters of the Almighty through the Spirit and “fellow heirs” of God’s blessings of the resurrection and a life in the Kingdom with Messiah. If we suffer, we will also be glorified.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.

Romans 8:18-22

broken worldAnd yet, we aren’t the only ones suffering. Remember in Romans 5, Paul compared and contrasted Adam and Yeshua, the first man who brought sin into the world, and Messiah the redeemer who takes it away. But the fall of humanity through Adam didn’t just affect the nature and character of all subsequent human beings, but somehow, it altered the nature of all Creation. Creation itself “groans” in its present, imperfect state. The world is broken and is constantly in need of repair.

If Creation is “anxiously longing” and “waiting eagerly for the revealing of the Sons of God” and we believers, Jews and Gentiles alike, are the sons and daughters of God, what must we do to “reveal” ourselves and how does this help Creation?

This is only my opinion of course, but I think that we are expected to observe the principle of Tikkun Olam or repairing the world. I heard a Jewish person once refer to Messiah as “the great fixer” because that’s what he’s supposed to do: fix everything broken about the world.

According to some opinions, “making the world a better place…brings us closer to the Messianic Age.” According to Rabbi Yochanan, quoting Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai, the Jewish people will be redeemed when every Jew observes Shabbat (the Sabbath) twice in all its details (Kaplan, Aryeh. Chapter 2, “Sabbath Rest”, Sabbath: Day of Eternity, 1974). Shabbat 118b suggests that performing acts of tikkun olam will hasten the coming of Messiah and the emergence of the Messianic Age.

So, at least in my way of seeing things, the “Sons of God” reveal themselves to a waiting Creation by acts of repairing the damage to Creation.

But all that isn’t going to be easy:

For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.

Romans 8:22

You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.

Matthew 24:6-8

If we’re supposed to help repair the world by pushing against human nature and sin, human nature and sin are going to push back. We, along with the world around us, will continue to suffer, even as we fight to establish the Kingdom, until Messiah’s return when he comes to finish the work that he started (and that we’ve been continuing) and brings the completion of the New Covenant with him by perfecting the world and by perfecting us through the resurrection.

And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.

Romans 8:23-25

We have the first fruits of the Spirit, the down-payment, so to speak, of what is yet to come (Ephesians 1:14-16; 2 Corinthians 1:22). Like Creation, we must suffer, but we must also patiently wait. For as Creation waits for us, we wait longingly for the return of the King.

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.

Romans 8:28-30

This is one of those passages that some Christians say “proves” that Calvinism is correct and that God only chooses certain people to be saved. I’ve written more on this topic than I care to think about sometimes, including a four-part series called Taking the Fork in the Road (with apologies to Yogi Berra), but rest assured that God’s Sovereignty is not threatened in the least by allowing us free will to choose Him or to reject Him. That He has foreknowledge doesn’t affect what we choose to do down here “on the ground,” so to speak.

After all, it’s not the first time God set the choice between blessings and curses, between life and death in front of people:

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.”

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.

Genesis 4:7

love-in-lightsWe have the same choice set before us as did the Israelites, life or death, in our case by accepting or rejecting the New Covenant and its mediator Jesus Christ.

The rest of the chapter is an encouragement from Paul to his readers that given everything he’s just said, we have a great promise and a tremendous assurance that in choosing our Master and obedience, we cannot be ultimately condemned. If God was willing to turn His own Son over to suffering and death so as to elevate him to His right hand, He will also not fail us in our suffering but will graciously give us all things and fulfill His covenant promises.

But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:37-39

Human anguish and suffering in a broken and bleeding world juxtaposed against our conquest of that world through God and His love from which we cannot be separated by any imaginable entity or force. This is what we are longing for as adopted children who are being continually brought into His Presence through the blessings of the New Covenant promises as we enter the world that is here and still yet to come.

Reflections on Romans 3

For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.

Romans 2:25-29 (NASB)

Pour yourself a big cup of coffee and relax. This one is long.

It may seem a little odd to start a commentary on Romans 3 by quoting from Romans 2, but remember that I previously stated that my “reflections” on Romans series was an attempt to describe my impressions of this epistle as a complete unit, that is, a letter intended to be read all at once, rather than slicing and dicing it up into little sound bytes. The context of what Paul writes in the third chapter of this book (and remember, for Paul, this wasn’t a “book” nor did he actually divide his letter into chapters) spills over from what has come before it.

As a refresher, here’s how I ended my commentary on Romans 2:

If a Jew fails to perform a mitzvah, does he stop being a Jew? Does he become “uncircumcised?” This used to puzzle me. The whole “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh” thing has been used to justify calling Christians “spiritual Jews” and to support the old, tired theology of supersessionism. But I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying.

Paul is trying to inspire zeal for the Torah and for faith in Messiah in his non-believing Jewish brothers in Rome. How would he do that by insulting them and rejecting them? Worse, how would he do that by denigrating the Torah? He couldn’t.

But he could be saying that a Jew is justified before God if he is outwardly a Jew, that is, if he is obedient to the commandments, and if he is inwardly a Jew, that is, if he has faith in God and that faith is the motivation for obedience. The two go together…faith and works.

Paul, in my opinion, is saying that a Jewish person devoted to Hashem must be a Jew in his or her inward faith and also outwardly a Jew in behavior, in performance of the mitzvot. The two are inseparable to a complete Jewish identity.

And, if the Jewish person is boasting based on ethnicity and being a recipient of the promises but not also living a life of faith and obedience to God, then…

So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law?

Romans 2:26-27 (NASB)

So if a Gentile who is not circumcised, that is, who is not a Jew, nevertheless behaves as if he has a circumcised heart, that is, is obedient to God through faith in Messiah, then sees a Jewish person who is hypocritical, boasting in their ethnic identity but not “walking the walk,” so to speak, won’t that Gentile be justified in “pushing back” when the less-than-faithful Jew attempts to assert some sort of religious superiority over the Gentile based just on being ethnically Jewish?

And that’s where we start chapter 3:

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God. What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written,

“That You may be justified in Your words,
And prevail when You are judged.”

Romans 3:1-4 quoting Psalm 51:4 (NASB)

PaulRemember, Paul created no chapter divisions, so he’s simply continuing his point from the previous portion of his letter.

So is Paul saying that being ethnically Jewish in and of itself meaningless? Are people who are ethnically Jewish but not obedient to the mitzvot or even imperfect in their attempts to be observant cut off from God? What advantage is there in being (just) ethnically Jewish, simply born into a covenant relationship with God?

“Great in every respect.”

In other words, being born into a covenant relationship with God all by itself still has great advantages and still orients the Jewish person, regardless of their behavior, to God, both as the focus of His love and, if they are disobedient, the focus of His discipline as outlined in the conditions (listed in the Torah) of the Sinai covenant.

Then Paul lists one of the advantages: “entrusted with the oracles of God.” That word “oracles” is also translated as “words,” “revelation,” “utterances,” and “truth”. This means (to me) that at a time when the entire world was worshiping idols of wood and stone and passing their infants through fire as some sort of fertility rite, only the Israelites were trusted to possess and commit themselves to the words of God, which we can interpret as the Torah, Prophets and the Writings, the Tanakh or the entire canonized Bible as it existed when Paul was writing to the Romans.

The Bible records many periods when Israel was faithful to God and many periods when she wasn’t. And yet, through it all, God was faithful and the Israelites remained His people, entrusted with his statues and ordinances.

Then Paul says, “So what if some Jewish people are unfaithful? Do you think that means God is going to stop being faithful to the Jews and abrogate his covenant promises? Absolutely not!”

So even if “every human being [is] a liar, God it true.” Then Paul quotes from Psalm 51:4, which is King David’s famous confession and plea to God after his sin with Batsheva. This is David’s admission of sinning against God alone and because he has sinned, David knows God is justified in judging him and God’s verdict against David is true.

To me, this says a couple of things. The first is that, because God and Israel are in a covenant relationship with each other, and that covenant relationship lists consequences if Israel, or any individual Jew such as David is faithless, then God is justified in disciplining the nation or the individual based on that relationship. This is what happened to David and I believe Paul is saying that individual Jews in his time would also receive consequences from God for faithlessness and sin specifically because they are in a covenant relationship with God.

JudaismIn other words, just because God disciplines individual Jews or the entire nation of Israel doesn’t mean God has abandoned them and ended His covenant with them. Quite the opposite. It means that God is fully engaged with national Israel right down to the lives and behavior of each individual Jewish person. We Gentiles (Christians) have no right at all to say that God abandoned Israel in favor of “the Church.” Too bad “the Church” hasn’t read this passage of Romans in that particular light over the past nearly two-thousand years.

Was Paul concerned that Jesus-believing Gentiles were somehow “lording it over” Jews who were less than faithful or less than observant? According to Mark Nanos in his book The Mystery of Romans, Paul was admonishing the Jesus-believing Gentiles for parading their “freedom” (being “grafted in” to the blessings of the New Covenant promises without the requirement of undergoing the proselyte rite and being obligated to the full yoke of the Torah mitzvot) in front of the non-believing Jews with whom they were associating (along with Jesus-believing Jews) in a common synagogue setting and/or a common Jewish community context.

It may be (and this is just my “reflection”) that the Gentiles were encountering some Jewish non-believers who, not at all happy that Gentiles were being afforded equal social status and inclusion in Jewish community without converting to Judaism, were being boastful that they were ethnically Jewish, possessors of the “oracles of God,” and thus were to be accorded a superior status. The Gentiles to whom Paul is addressing may have been rather vocally stating that these Jews were indeed Jews “in the flesh” but their behavior in Torah observance and obedience to God was (in the Gentiles’ opinion) coming up short.

Paul then is telling these Gentiles not to be “knuckleheads” and “so what” if these Jewish non-believers aren’t perfect. They still have many advantages. Don’t rub their noses in the fact that Gentiles in Messiah are considered (at least by Paul) as equal co-participants in the covenant blessings and in Jewish worship and communal space.

But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.) May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world? But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come”? Their condemnation is just.

Romans 3:5-8 (NASB)

I may not be getting everything Paul is trying to communicate here, but my sense is that Paul is saying, even though the Jews have many advantages just by being born Jewish, God is still justified in judging unrighteousness among them, even as He promised He would in the Torah. God “inflicting wrath” does not mean He’s unrighteous, that is, does not mean (as I said before) that God is abandoning His relationship with Israel. When any one in Israel is judged by God to have sinned, God is justified in inflicting discipline.

In verse 9, Paul says that relative to judgment for sin, the Jews do not have an advantage over the Gentiles due to their covenant relationship with God, because God is justified in condemning anyone who sins. No one is perfect. Everyone sins. Everyone can be under the “power of sin” (Romans 3:9 NIV).

In Romans 3:10-18, Paul weaves a number of different scriptures into his “none are righteous” part of the chapter, including Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Eccles. 7:20; Psalm 5:9; Psalm 140:3; Psalm 10:7 (see Septuagint); Isaiah 59:7,8 and Psalm 36:1.

Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

Romans 3:19-20 (NASB)

This continues Paul’s point that even if Jews are obedient to the mitzvot, obedience without faith does not justify one before God. Only faith and obedience. The whole world is accountable to God. Does that mean the whole world is obligated to the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews? Some might conclude that we are based in this single verse. On the other hand, taking the larger Biblical narrative into account, we know that Israel was to be a light to the world, and up to the time of Messiah’s first advent, that light hadn’t been producing a lot of illumination.

light-of-the-worldBut it’s by Israel’s light that the world was intended to be informed of God and His blessings, as well as be informed of what constituted both righteousness and sin. The Torah, among its many other purposes, defines what it is to disobey God and thus be condemned. But even an awareness of the Law and being behaviorally compliant is insufficient if there is no Kavanah or intension, sometimes expressed as “direction of the heart”.

Although Jews and the Gentiles in Messiah had different (overlapping) behavioral obligations, they were all judged based, not necessarily on the perfection of their performance, but on the presence or absence of faith, devotion, and motivation. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s expectations, but if a man like King David who sinned greatly with the affair and impregnation of the married woman Batsheva, the murder of her husband Uriah, and attempting to cover it all up by quickly marrying Batsheva after the mourning period for her husband’s death had passed, could still repent and be considered “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) specifically because of the quality of David’s kavanah, then so could the less than perfect Jews Paul was referencing in his letter.

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:21-26 (NASB)

We might condense the above-quoted statement to say something like, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested through faith in Jesus Christ.” That makes it seem as if faith in Christ has replaced the Law (Torah observance) as a means of being considered righteousness. Except that Torah observance was never considered a means of righteousness. Only faith.

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

Genesis 15:6 (NASB)

Abraham was considered righteous by God because of his faith, long before the Torah was given at Sinai and even before the commandment of circumcision as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. Thus it is faith that is the common denominator across all populations, Jewish and Gentile, that reckons anyone as righteous before a Holy God.

That seems to explain part of what Paul is saying in Romans 3:21-26, but what about faith in Jesus Christ, in Yeshua HaMashiach? Up until now, faith in Hashem, God of the Heavens was required. What changed?

The second elementary teaching of the Messiah in Hebrews 6:12 is called “faith toward God,” but how is this distinct from other first-century sects of Judaism? Even the Sadducees believed in God. Find out how Yeshua transformed the faith of his followers, and get a fresh handle on what it means to “believe in Jesus” and to be “born again.”

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Twenty: Faith Toward God
Originally presented on June 15, 2013
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

That is exactly the question D.T. Lancaster answers in the above-quoted sermon in his “Hebrews” series, which I reviewed a number of weeks ago. I also mentioned this topic in a related blog post called Why No One Comes To The Father Except Through The Son.

What changed? Why was devotion solely to Hashem no longer the target to be aimed at for a devout Jew? Actually, that’s not what changed. As mentioned in both of my commentaries on Lancaster, the Jesus-believing Jews of “the Way” and the Pharisees had almost exactly the same set of beliefs about God. There was only a slight variance between them and you could almost call Paul and the other Jesus-believing Jews “Pharisees with a Messianic twist.”

AbrahamYou might say that God’s plan for the ultimate redemption of Israel had been progressing forward in time since Abraham. If you look at the pattern of the covenants, you’ll see God building, step by step, on His plan, establishing the promises with Abraham, carrying them out through Isaac, and Jacob, the exile of Jacob’s family to Egypt where they grew into a great multitude, the raising up of Moses and Aaron, leading them out of Egyptian slavery and on their many journeys, and culminating at Sinai with the establishing of the Mosaic covenant and the giving of the Torah, forming the nation of Israel as the light to the world.

But it didn’t end there. Even after possessing the Land, national Israel struggled. Their history is clear. Did God’s plan fail? Did Israel fail? No. The plan was incomplete. It was never meant to encompass just Israel, but the whole world through Israel.

That’s why the New Covenant was prophesied through Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and many other prophets. The New Covenant would be written, not on scrolls or tablets, but on the Jewish heart, so that Israel could finally perfectly observe the mitzvot with absolute kavanah and without sin.

Messiah, among other things, was the herald of the New Covenant. He brought the beginning of the inauguration of that Covenant with his birth into the world, receiving the Holy Spirit, his ability to heal, his correct teachings, his death and resurrection, and his promise to return.

He was the messenger of the next logical, Biblical, evolutionary step in God’s redemptive plan, his Good News to the nation of Israel, and through Israel’s redemption, the salvation of the world as well.

At each step in the plan, the Jewish people could continue to have faith in God or not. Many did. Some didn’t. The Bible records their fate. Messiah came not to say “believe in me instead of God” but “believe in me because of God for I am His messenger and through my message you can come fully and completely, in a way never before realized by any living Jew, to God the Father, Master of Legions, Author of Life.”

Another step and a really big one in God’s plan. Accept or reject. Faith or faithlessness. You choose.

new heartThe choice was given to Gentiles for the first time since the establishment of the Israelite nation. No longer would a non-Jew have to undergo the proselyte ritual and convert to Judaism. No longer would a Gentile be required to affiliate with a tribe or clan of Israel (as they did in the days of Moses). Now, because of the New Covenant promises and how they include the Abrahamic blessings to the nations, all people of every nation, tribe, and tongue can, through Messiah, come alongside Israel, just as it was prophesied, and take part in the covenant blessings of God by being grafted into the root.

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.

Romans 3:27-30 (NASB)

Paul might be saying, so, having said all that, do Jews get to brag that they are justified and made righteous by being born Jews or even by observance of the mitzvot? No. Yes, being born Jewish and having the Torah has terrific advantages as I said, but ultimately, no one is justified by being born a Jew or by being physically circumcised. Justification, for a Jew or Gentile, comes only through a faith like Abraham’s.

I can see Paul really needing to make this point to the Gentile Jesus-believers reading the letter. I can see how they could be really confused in the face of non-believing Jews telling them that justification and righteousness comes only through being Jewish. Paul needed to set them straight and orient them and their Jewish counterparts, to the reality of the “law of faith”. God is a God of the Jews and a God to the Gentiles so both the Jews and Gentiles have their hope in Him through Messiah’s Good News.

But Paul has to be particularly careful. In emphasizing faith, he can’t be seen to diminish the reality and the vital importance of the Torah or of Jewish identity. Remember, the Jews still have many great advantages over the Gentiles (sorry, but it’s true) as possessors of the words of God. Israel was the original recipient of Torah, and is the total and complete object of the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and New Covenants. It’s only through Israel that the rest of us have any hope of salvation at all, so let’s not get cocky.

That explains the last verse in the chapter:

Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.

Romans 3:31 (NASB)

Especially according to the entire context of the letter as it has been presented so far, Paul’s statement couldn’t be plainer. Faith does not nullify, do away with, fulfill (in the sense of abolish), abolish, replace, or complete (in the sense of abolish) the Law. Faith establishes the Law!

That is, through a completeness of Jewish faith, in this context, in God through Messiah, the Law is established, fully founded in a way never conceived or before or if conceived of, never accomplished before in Jewish lives.

Remember, we have to view all of this through the New Covenant. Jesus was bringing the New Covenant into our world. The evidence was the fact that even the Gentiles were receiving the Holy Spirit (see Acts 10) just as the Jews had (Acts 2). The New Covenant was going to radically change the relationship between the Jewish people, the Holy Spirit, and observance of the mitzvot:

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Jeremiah 31:33-34 (NASB)

Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.

Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NASB)

When the New Covenant reaches fruition, God will write the Torah on the heart, and each Jewish person (and ultimately the rest of us) will have an apprehension of God that is so complete, that they/we will know God, as the prophets knew Him, as Moses knew Him, with complete intimacy, and all Israel’s sins (and the Gentiles’ attached to Israel through Messiah) will be forgiven.

the-divine-torahFurther, a completeness of the Holy Spirit will be poured out so that it will be possible for Israel to totally observe all of the Torah ordinances perfectly and without sin.

This is what it means when Paul says, Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.

The Torah will be established in the New Covenant era in a way that it never could have been at any other time in history, for the conditions of God’s covenant with Israel will no longer be limited to being recorded on scrolls but will, in some mysterious manner, be written on the Jewish heart and soul, and Israel will be enabled by the Holy Spirit to finally, perfectly be in obedience to God as God requires through the Torah.

And we Gentiles who come to faith in the God of Israel through Messiah will be grafted in and be sharers of the covenant blessings, living in the resurrection under the reign of King Messiah in perfect peace and knowledge of Israel’s God.

“Run to pursue even a minor mitzvah and flee from a transgression.”

-Ben Azzai, Pirkei Avot 5:2

Next up: Reflections on Romans 4.

Shabbat Shalom.