Tag Archives: Apostles

Remembering Jerusalem

poor-israel…and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

Galatians 2:9-10 (ESV)

James, Peter, and John gave Saul and Barnabas “the right hand of fellowship.” They commissioned them to go to the Gentiles while they themselves continued to witness Messiah to the Jewish people. Saul says, “They only asked us to remember the poor – the very thing I also was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10). How should this single caveat be understood?

It does not mean the apostles laid upon the Gentile believers no greater obligation to Torah than the commandment of giving charity generously to the poor. Saul did not say, “Only they asked the Gentiles to give charity to the poor.” He said, “Only they asked us to remember the poor.” In this context, “us” must be Saul and Barnabas.

In his commentary on Galatians, Richard Longenecker identifies “the Poor” in Galatians 2:10 as a shorthand abbreviation for the longer title that Paul gives them in Romans 15:26, where he refers to them as “the poor among the saints at Jerusalem…” Saul and Barnabas were to remember the Poor Ones of the apostolic assembly of believers in Jerusalem: the pillars, the elders, the assembly of James and the apostles.

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 362-3)
Commentary on Galatians 2:1-18, Acts 12:25

I’ve talked about charity very recently. It was less than two months ago that I discovered that some folks at the church I attend believe that Christians have a special duty to support the poor of Israel based on the following:

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:37-40 (ESV)

I was trying to describe this to my (Jewish) wife just the other day, but I’m not sure she believed me. It’s not typical behavior from many churches. On the other hand, as we see from Lancaster’s teaching on Galatians 2, there is a rather clear Biblical precedent for the Gentile believers to “remember” the poor of Israel.

OK, I know that according to Lancaster, James and the Apostolic council was telling Saul (Paul) and Barnabas to remember the poor of Israel, but look at the context. On the very heels of the council validating Paul’s mission to the Gentiles to bring them to covenant relationship with God through Messiah without requiring that the Gentiles convert to Judaism, and sending Paul and Barnabas back to the Goyim with their good graces, James, Peter (Cephas), and John added the caveat to remember the poor. How could that message then not be transmitted by Paul from the Apostolic council to the Gentiles in the diaspora?

Still don’t believe me?

Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem.

1 Corinthians 16:1-3 (ESV)

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints…

2 Corinthians 8:1-4 (ESV)

Which “saints” do you think Paul was taking about?

It sure looks like Paul was imploring, directing, even commanding the Gentile churches in the diaspora to take up a collection to be used as a donation to the poor among the Apostolic community in Jerusalem, even from the poor among the Gentile churches.

poor-israel2I’m not trying to beat a dead horse, I’m trying to inspire some life in the one we have, but the one we often ignore, most likely through ignorance. I said just yesterday that we translate and interpret the Bible based on our traditions and theologies. The obligation of the Christian church to support the poor among Israel has fallen through the cracks of our creaky theology for nearly twenty centuries. It’s time to fix the floorboards, firm up the foundation, and take back the responsibility that we were given by the first Apostles and the men who walked with Christ.

This does not absolve us of our responsibility to the poor of the nations, the poor of our country, our city, within our neighborhoods and our own churches. But it opens the door in our lives and in our spirits to remember Jerusalem, to remember Israel, and God’s special covenant people, our mentors, and the root of our salvation.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!

Psalm 137:5-6 (ESV)

If you’re hard pressed to know where to begin, then consider visiting meirpanim.net, colelchabad.org, or chevrahumanitarian.org. That’s just for starters.

The Uncircumcised Convert, Part 2

mikveh-project“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

Acts 10:47-48 (ESV)

When Simon Peter heard the Gentiles speaking in the languages and saw that they had received the Spirit just as he and the other Jewish believers had, he could no longer theologically exclude them from participation in the kingdom or discipleship. (see Acts 10:47-48) They had not gone through a legal conversion to become Jewish, nor had they been circumcised. They were still Gentiles, yet they had experienced the Spirit of God, just as the Jewish believers had.

Simon Peter explained to the six men that had accompanied him from Joppa, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” By skipping circumcision and going directly to immersion, Simon Peter inverted the process by which a Gentile might ordinarily become a disciple of Yeshua. Prior to that occasion, he and the other disciples required a Gentile to first submit to conversion/circumcision. Immersion could follow later.

Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Vayeshev (“And he dwelt”) (pg 235)
Commentary on Acts 9:32-11:18

If you haven’t done so already, please read Part 1 of this commentary before continuing here.

This is the second time in his commentary on Acts 10 that Lancaster suggests Peter or the other Jewish apostles may have previously converted Gentiles to Judaism by first having them circumcised and then entering them into Jesus discipleship. As I mentioned in Part 1, I can’t think of any record in the Bible that points in this direction. I do note however, that Philip also did not require the Ethiopian eunuch to be circumcised prior to immersion. However, that more than likely means the eunuch was Jewish (and did not need to convert) since Luke makes no point of the eunuch being a Gentile as he does of Cornelius (although as previously mentioned, there are a number of assumptions in play).

What Lancaster says regarding circumcision and conversion of Gentiles does fit nicely into Shaye J.D. Cohen’s opinion (see his book, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Second Edition) of how Gentiles were made into Jewish disciples as I mentioned in another commentary.

However, as the history of Israel progressed, the concept of conversation to Judaism for the Gentile began to become more formalized. Cohen cites three essential elements of conversion to Judaism: belief in God, circumcision, and joining the house of Israel. Again, this is a definition of a convert to Judaism, not conditions required for the Gentile to join “the Way” as disciples of Christ. Cohen even references the difference:

For Paul, circumcision represents subjugation to the demands of the Torah (Gal. 3-5).

In other words, while Paul did not see circumcision and thus full obedience to the mitzvot as a requirement for the Gentile Christians, he did see it as a necessary step for full conversion to Judaism. The natural conclusion then is that a Gentile becoming a disciple of the Jewish Messiah in the time of Paul was not the same as a Gentile converting to Judaism.

Another indication that Gentiles entering into Jesus discipleship were not converting to Judaism is found in the aftermath of Peter’s experience with Cornelius.

Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

Acts 11:1-3 (ESV)

This wasn’t exactly a friendly inquiry on the part of Peter’s fellow Jewish apostles.

Rumors of his (Peter’s) activities among the Gentiles preceded him. It did not take long for word of Simon’s Peter’s theological leap and halachic faux pas to reach the rest of the Judean apostolic community. The inclusion of the Samaritans had been controversial enough. Simon’s fraternization with Gentiles raised astonishment and disbelief.

No one objected to Gentiles joining the assembly of Yeshua so long as they first went through a proper conversion, but according to the rumor, that had not happened. People were even saying that Simon Peter had entered the home of the Roman soldier, eaten with him, and invited him to immerse for the name of Yeshua.

Such an association of Gentiles with Jews, and the Gentiles being allowed into discipleship within a Jewish sect without first converting to Judaism, must have seemed outrageous to the Jewish apostolic community in Jerusalem. Luke points out in verse 2 that “circumcision party criticized him,” meaning the people present were Jews, either people born Jewish or converts to Judaism. A Jew eating with a Gentile was a violation of halachah. Lichtenstein in “Commentary on the New Testament” on Acts 11:3 considers this matter further.

“You went to uncircumcized men and ate with them” (Acts 11:3). This does not present a difficulty, for Cornelius was a God-fearer and certainly had kosher food. And the objection of the circumcised men is only about [Peter’s] approaching uncircumcised men and eating with them, for Jews were forbidden to approach a foreigner.

-Lancaster, pg 236

Cohen might not entirely agree with Lichtenstein, since he believes God-fearers were still polytheists, integrating the God of Israel into a panthenon of other “gods.” However, it is quite likely that Peter and the six Jews in his company would not have eaten with Cornelius unless the food was kosher and there’s nothing to say, Cohen aside, that Cornelius must have been polytheistic.

ancient-rabbi-teachingIn his defense, Peter and the other Jews who accompanied him recounted the events that occurred prior to entering the Roman’s home and what happened once Peter engaged Cornelius, including the giving of the Spirit to the Gentiles. (see Acts 11:4-17) Fortunately, upon hearing the explanation, the other apostles understood the graciousness of God, even to the Gentiles.

When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

Acts 11:18 (ESV)

Lancaster presents his final interpretation of the “Cornelius event,” raising another interesting question.

The apostolic leadership accepted Simon Peter’s testimony and the corroboration offered by the six men from Joppa. The were forced to concede that Sinon had acted properly in setting aside the halachah about the uncleanness of Gentiles. More than that, they realized that God accepted the Gentiles into the kingdom. They did not determine whether or not the new Gentile believers should be encouraged to remain God-fearers or go on to full conversion. They only determined that they should receive Gentile brethern without objection as fellow disciples and heirs of the kingdom.

Uncertain of what else to make of the situation, they blessed God.

-Lancaster, pg 237

As we can see, both from the text in Acts and in Lancaster’s interpretation, the early Jewish apostles struggled to understand how to integrate the Gentile disciples into the Jewish Messianic community. The realization that Gentiles may not have to convert to Judaism (and according to Lancaster, at this point the jury was still out on this matter) in order to become disciples was revolutionary. All other sects of Judaism who were actively pursuing Gentiles as disciples required that the Gentiles convert to Judaism as a matter of course. In other words, it was a “no brainer.” Only in the Jesus sect was the method of entering Gentiles into a Jewish sect still something of a question mark. God didn’t just flip some sort of “spiritual switch” and suddenly, all of the apostles “just knew” what to do with the Gentiles and what it all meant.

But if the Gentiles didn’t have to convert; if they didn’t have to accept circumcision, then how was Torah and halachah to be applied to them? As we saw above, Paul and Cohen’s commentary on Paul understand that conversion to Judaism and circumcision meant the Gentiles would be fully obligated to the Torah mitzvot. As of the events in Acts 11 that question hadn’t even been brought up let alone answered. The apostles had no idea what was coming next. Neither did Cornelius and his household or any other Gentiles who subsequently became disciples.

It will be weeks before Lancaster’s Torah Club commentary addresses the events in Acts 15 which presumably will answer these questions. I hope you are looking forward to the future revelations of Volume 6 of the Torah Club as much as I am.

The Uncircumcised Convert, Part 1

corneliusAnd he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”

Acts 10:28-29 (ESV)

Simon Peter still had no idea why he had been called to Caesarea. The notion of Gentile inclusion in the kingdom had not occurred to him. Though the Master had told the apostles to “make disciples of all the nations” and to witness on His behalf “even to the remotest part of the earth,” He had never implied that this might mean accepting Gentiles as Gentiles (see Matthew 28:19; Acts 1:8). Simon naturally assumed that any Gentiles entering the kingdom and taking on the yoke of discipleship would necessarily convert to become Jewish first.

Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Vayeshev (“And he dwelt”) (pp 231-2)
Commentary on Acts 9:32-11:18

I don’t know where D. Thomas Lancaster discovered that bit of information about Peter in his commentary on Acts 10 or even if it’s simply an interesting opinion, but if true, then it begs the question, did Peter or any of the other apostles actually convert a Gentile to Judaism as part of the process of making disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) from the nations? As far as I’m aware, there’s no record in the New Testament prior to Acts 10 of the apostles converting a Gentile to Judaism, or allowing a Gentile to enter into the kingdom without conversion in the context of Jesus discipleship. The thousands we see coming to faith in the Jewish Messiah in Acts 2 and later are almost certainly all Jews. For that matter, what do we know of the Ethiopian eunuch encountered by the apostle Philip prior to Peter being summoned by Cornelius?

And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah.

Acts 8:27-28 (ESV)

The Ethiopian eunuch is sometimes considered the first Gentile convert (E.g., Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.1.13). That seems unlikely. Luke makes no issue about his non-Jewish status as he does regarding Cornelius in Acts 10. Ethiopia was home to a continuous Jewish presence from the days of Solomon up until the modern era. Beta Israel Jews, also known as Ethiopian Jews, claim Jewish ancestry reaching back to the Solomonic Era. One may safely assume that an Ethiopian who went to the trouble of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship the LORD in His Temple was Jewish. Luke says, “He had come to Jerusalem to worship” (Acts 8:27). The eunuch had traveled a great distance to reach Jerusalem, more than a month’s travel time. He had probably come to attend one of the pilgrimage festivals. While in Jerusalem, he purchased several Greek versions of the scrolls of the prophets – reading material for the trip home.

Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Vayetze (“And he went out”) (pp 176-7)
Commentary on Acts 8:1-40

I think we have to accept that Lancaster is making some assumptions here, as he says, but they are certainly compelling assumptions. Luke indeed makes “no big deal” of the Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion to the “Jesus sect” but draws a tremendous amount of attention to Cornelius and his household of Gentiles when they receive the Holy Spirit.

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.

Acts 10:44-45 (ESV)

Peter and his Jewish companions were astonished that the Gentiles could also receive the Holy Spirit while Philip…but wait. Did the Ethiopian eunuch receive the Spirit during his encounter with Philip?

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Acts 8:34-39 (ESV)

Immediately after rising from the water, Philip is taken away by the Spirit, but there is no mention at all of the Ethiopian eunuch receiving the Spirit as did Cornelius and his household in Acts 10 or the apostles in Acts 2. Of course in Acts 10 the Gentiles received the Spirit (verse 44) and then were baptized in water (verse 48). Did the Ethiopian eunuch receive the Spirit prior to immersion and the event was simply not mentioned by Luke?

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

Acts 2:37-41 (ESV)

philip_and_the_ethiopianNotice that Peter tells his Jewish audience that to receive forgiveness of sins, they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, but when Luke describes the results in verse 41, he only says, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” He doesn’t say that after they received his (Peter’s) word, they received the Spirit and then were baptized. It’s possible, given that these were Jews being discussed, Luke assumed his readership would know that they received the Spirit based on verses 1-4. That same thought process might have been in use when Luke describes the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. However this is just guess-work on my part.

But while the Jews who received the good news of the Moshiach in Acts 2 came to faith in Jesus but did not have to convert to Judaism (and arguably, neither did the Ethiopian eunuch), what about Cornelius and his household in Acts 10? If Lancaster’s assumption is correct, Peter should have expected Gentiles to convert to Judaism as a part of becoming disciples of the Jewish Messiah.

I mentioned in a previous meditation that Shaye J.D. Cohen in his book, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Second Edition said it was not uncommon for those from the various sects of late Second Temple era Judaism to make converts from the Gentiles including the God-fearers. If Peter expected, as did the other Judaisms of his day, that Gentiles would have to convert to Judaism in order to enter into discipleship, then he should have had Cornelius and the other male God-fearers present circumcised as part of the conversion process.

When Simon Peter heard the Gentiles speaking in the languages and saw that they had received the Spirit just as he and the other Jewish believers had, he could no longer theologically exclude them from participation in the kingdom or discipleship. (see Acts 10:47-48) They had not gone through a legal conversion to become Jewish, nor had they been circumcised. They were still Gentiles, yet they had experienced the Spirit of God, just as the Jewish believers had.

Simon Peter explained to the six men that had accompanied him from Joppa, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” By skipping circumcision and going directly to immersion, Simon Peter inverted the process by which a Gentile might ordinarily become a disciple of Yeshua. Prior to that occasion, he and the other disciples required a Gentile to first submit to conversion/circumcision. Immersion could follow later.

-Lancaster, pg 235

This presentation on Lancaster’s Torah Club commentary went longer than I originally planned, so I’m splitting it into two parts. Please join me tomorrow for the second and final part in Monday’s “morning meditation.”

Vayera: Miraculous

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

Genesis 18:1 (JPS Tanakh)

When Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch was a child of four or five, he entered into the room of his grandfather, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, and burst into tears. His teacher in cheder had taught the verse “And G-d revealed himself to Abraham…” “Why,” wept the child, “doesn’t G-d reveal Himself to me?!”

Rabbi Menachem Mendel replied: “When a Jew, a tzaddik, realizes at the age of 99 that he must circumcise himself, that he must continue to perfect himself, he is worthy that G-d should reveal Himself to him.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Tears of a Child”

This is a well-known commentary on this week’s Torah Portion, Vayera and I’m hardly in a position to add to what a great many sages and spiritual luminaries have already stated regarding this portion of the Torah. But in studying the Torah Club commentary (volume 6) for this week on Acts 4:32-5:42, I discovered what could be a tangentially related issue.

Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.

Acts 5:12-16 (ESV)

D. Thomas Lancaster’s lesson on these verses, both in the written text of his commentary and in the Torah Club audio teaching, speaks about “the age of miracles” and whether or not we have miracles today. As we read passages such as the one I quoted above, we Christians may be hard pressed to explain why 2,000 years ago, severely ill and disabled people could be cured simply by having Peter’s shadow fall across them, while today our most fervent prayers and petitions to God fail to prevent a loved one from dying of cancer. Why don’t we see miraculous signs, wonders, and healings in today’s church?

Some say that we do, but because we live in the 21st century, many events that a person 2,000 years ago would have called a miracle, today might be explained as some other phenomena. Even in the church, we are sometimes hesitant to say something is a miracle for fear of appearing foolish. On other occasions, the claims of miraculous events from some seem to be so common that the credibility of witnesses is brought into question.

While I do believe that sometimes miracles do happen today, they don’t seem to be “predictable,” which I guess stands to reason, but they also don’t seem to be predictably produced by an identifiable individual or group of individuals, such as the apostles. When we read about Peter, John, and the other apostles in the early chapters of Acts, it’s as if they’re doing miracles all the time.

One explanation, as Lancaster points out, is that the book of Acts compresses 35 years of history into about two hours worth of reading. It’s easy to get the impression that Peter was healing the sick through miracles every day and several times a day. This is probably untrue and only the “highlights” of the “Acts of the Apostles” were recorded by Luke. All of the other more mundane occurrences in their lives over three and a half decades went unchronicled and passed away into the shadows of history.

But there’s another reason we may not see miracles today the way we see them in Acts.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Acts 2:1-4 (ESV)

This is the day when the apostles of Christ (and only the apostles of Christ) received the Holy Spirit. Most Christians think this event is identical to what happens to all people everywhere when they receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (although I’ve yet to hear a modern Christian tell me that they received the Spirit on tongues of fire). But what if this isn’t exactly true?

We know that in Acts 10:44-45 the Roman Centurion Cornelius and his entire household also received the Holy Spirit, but to the best of our knowledge, none of them went on, after the initial event, to perform miraculous healings, signs, and wonders. What’s the difference between Cornelius and Peter? Were the Jews the only ones with the Spirit able to perform miracles, or was something else going on?

It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

Hebrews 2:3-4 (ESV)

Take a closer look at this verse. According to Lancaster, “those who heard”, that is, those who were direct witnesses of the Messiah, were the apostles. Only the apostles were able to be witnesses of the validity of Jesus “by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his (God’s) will.”

The idea, in this particular explanation, is that during the so-called “age of miracles,” God did not use everyone to perform miracles, and miracles did not occur for just any old reason at all. The miracles were a witness that occurred through those who actually walked and talked with the Master, that he is the Messiah, the Son of God.

The apostles could be compared to Abraham as we re-examine the brief Chasidic tale recorded by Rabbi Tauber above. They were “tzaddikim” (Righteous Ones) who were assigned by God to fulfill a specific mission and purpose; to witness to the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth. Their tools for doing so, in addition to what they taught, were signs and wonders.

I know this viewpoint could be questioned and disbelieved, but I think we should at least consider the possibility. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t do miracles today, and it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t use “ordinary Christians” to perform said-miracles today. It does mean however, that God does miracles “according to His will” and not our will. It also may mean, as we see in Rabbi Tauber’s tale, that when someone, a tzaddik, realizes he must perform the equivalent of “circumcising himself at the age of 99 years, he is worthy that G-d should reveal Himself to him.”

It’s an imperfect theory and it certainly could be wrong, but we’re an imperfect people and God, and His reasons for doing anything, are perfect. Whether we understand the nature of miracles happening in the past as opposed to happening the present or not, we can certainly acknowledge that miracles seem to occur in the world from time to time, at the will of God and for His own purposes, but we must not depend on them. Should God choose to intervene in our lives with a miracle, it is good, but if He chooses not to, it is good as well.

We depend, not on miracles to sustain us or to be a witness to the Messiah, but on our faith and trust in God. These are the stones with which God builds the path we walk upon as we journey each day, as we follow Him, reaching out to touch the hem of his garment, flourishing in the glow of His holiness, and then reflecting that light into the world. Perhaps that is miracle enough, for the light of God is His healing of the world.

It is a Divine kindness that His mercies are endless.

Lamentations 3:22

Another way to translate this verse is, “It is a Divine kindness that we are never finished.”

The Maggid of Koznitz was extremely frail and sickly as a child. It was not thought that he would survive to adulthood. Much of his life was spent sick in bed, and he was so weak that he was often unable to sit up to meet visitors. Still, he lived to an advanced age.

The Maggid once revealed the secret of his longevity. “I never allowed myself to be without an assignment or a task to perform,” he said. “People are taken from this world only when their missions here are completed. Whenever I was just about to finish one task, I would start another; hence, I could not be removed from this world if my assignment was not completed.”

Even from a purely physiological aspect, the Maggid’s concept is valid. Some think that the healthiest thing for us is rest and relaxation. Not so. In reality, unused muscles tend to atrophy, while muscles that are exercised and stimulated are strengthened.

The same principle applies to the entire person. If we constantly stimulate ourselves to achieve new goals, we avoid the apathy that leads to atrophy.

Today I shall…

try to take on a new spiritual goal, and stimulate myself to greater achievement in serving God and being of help to other people.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Cheshvan 16”

I’ll be away from the computer for the day and won’t be available to respond to or approve comments. If I am unable to attend to them before Shabbat begins, then I will do so on Saturday after sundown.

Good Shabbos.

Who Are We in Christ?

Being caught up in the fresh wind of God’s activity among the Gentiles, none of the apostles or the other Jewish believers immediately attempted to formulate a theology of Gentile identity. They just rejoiced. As we seek to formulate—or perhaps more accurately, to rediscover—that same theology today, we must remember to keep our priorities straight. We must praise God that his activity is universal and that he gives the same Holy Spirit to all who believe. But our questions still haven’t been answered, and neither had the questions of the believing Jews in Jerusalem. Before too long, two elements emerged. One group, mostly Pharisees who had accepted Christ, did not recognize the eschatological significance of the miraculous conversion of Cornelius. They argued that these Gentile believers must proselytize; they must convert to Judaism. Others, though, dissented. One of them was Sha’ul, also known as Paul, who had just come back from a mission trip to Asia Minor (known today as Turkey). He, like Peter, had witnessed God working in the lives of Gentiles. He reported that many Gentiles had come to faith in Jesus. We know from Paul’s epistles that he immediately forbade these Gentile converts from worshipping idols. They could no longer be identified as pagans. So how were they to be identified?

While the “circumcision faction” —probably a majority— answered this question by requiring conversion to Judaism, Paul refused this answer to the Gentile problem. This conflict was resolved in Acts 15 at what is now called the Jerusalem Council. First, Paul’s opponents made their case. Then Peter got up and told his story. Then Paul and Barnabas told theirs. They didn’t give a theological reason for their position. They just told their stories. For them, that was enough. They had seen firsthand how God had miraculously changed the hearts of the Gentiles who had attached themselves to Jesus. It was clear enough to Peter, Paul, and Barnabas that the Gentiles didn’t need another status change. They had been accepted just as they were.

It was James, Jesus’ brother, who gave a theological voice to the position of Peter and Paul. He quoted Amos 9:11–12: “‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name,’ says the Lord, who does these things, things known from long ago.” James reasoned that the wave of Gentiles who were coming to faith were a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. At this juncture, with James’s ruling, it became halachah — law — within the early church that Gentiles did not have to become Jews. Not only that, but their identity was just as valid and as valuable as that of the Jews. They too had an eschatological significance, they too were a fulfillment of prophecy, and they too were called by God to be part of the body of believers, just as the Jews were.

At the Jerusalem Council, then, one aspect of the identity of the Gentile believers had been confirmed. They weren’t Jews, and since the term “Jew” and “Israelite” had been synonymous since the Captivity, they couldn’t be called “Israelites” either. They were still Gentiles. But in the first century, the terms “Gentile” and “pagan” were synonymous.

Knowing this, many Two-House proponents are offended at being called “Gentiles.” To them, the terms “Gentile” and “pagan” are still synonymous today. They believe that Israel constitutes the only people of God. The negative connotation of the word goy in rabbinic literature only serves to confirm this sentiment. Yet the New Testament is clear that believing Gentiles are still called Gentiles. They remained members of the ethnē, the nations, and the apostles addressed them as such.

Yet non-idol-worshipping Gentiles were virtually unheard of. There was no precedent. New words and concepts had to be created to explain this new phenomenon, or else familiar concepts had to be adapted. The latter route is the one the New Testament authors took in identifying the Gentile converts, their place in God’s plan, and their obligations to God and to the Jewish people.

-From an unpublished book I can’t talk about yet

Receiving the SpiritIn my various roles as an author, editor, and reviewer, I occasionally receive advance copies of books that I really can’t discuss until they are published or near their publication dates. Nevertheless, as I was reading this one, I came across the above quoted section of a particular chapter and was rather taken by the content. The viewpoint of the author (who must remain nameless for now) is very much like mine, and what is written speaks to not only what I understand to be true for me, but also answers a number of my questions about who the Gentile disciples of the Master were in the first century…and maybe who they…who we really are today.

We don’t really think about it much now from a “church” point of view, but just how did the original Jewish Apostles of the Jewish Messiah see the newly-minted Gentile disciples? What sort of plan was there (if any) to integrate them into the larger Jewish faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? When a first century idol worshiper accepted being a disciple of Jesus of Nazereth, did they stop being a “Gentile” and turn into something else? If so, what did they turn into…a Jew?

Paul says no, otherwise, he wouldn’t have had any objections to Gentiles (males, that is) becoming circumcised (see Galatians 2) and actually converting to Judaism, but if the Gentiles weren’t “spiritual Jews,” what were they? More to the point, who are we now?

(I know you’re thinking “we’re Christians,” but that term didn’t exist back then, at least not as it’s defined today. Who the new, non-Jewish disciples were was a completely unsettled matter in the beginning. So who were they, and who are we?)

That, as they used to say, is the $64,000 question. But why am I even bothering to ask it, especially right now?

Another round of the “One Law” vs. “Bilateral Ecclesiology” debate has reared its ugly head, this time starting in Derek Leman’s blog post We’re Not All the Same and then continuing in Comfort, Agitation, Breakthrough (I say “raised its ugly head” not to disparage Derek’s writing or choice of themes, but just to describe the rather repetitive nature of said-discussions and their lack of concrete resolution). The comments sections of Derek’s blog posts were fresh in my mind as I was reading the text from the above-quoted book and I couldn’t let the matter go, much as I’d like to.

Besides my usual stance that non-Jews claiming obligation to a Jewish lifestyle that (apart from disdaining Mishnah, Gemara, and Talmud) mirrors actual Jewish observance dilutes and threatens to eliminate Jewish distinction from the nations, I realized there was another serious matter going on.

Consider this.

When a Gentile Christian with an attraction to Jewish observance concludes that the same 613 commandments that the Creator gave to the Israelites at Sinai are also assigned to any non-Jew who has accepted discipleship under the Jewish Messiah, then they are saying that every Christian is obligated to a Torah lifestyle. That means, astonishingly enough, that any Christian who does not observe the entire “yoke of Torah” is sinning!

And yet, the vast majority of Christians in the church have absolutely the opposite understanding of their obligations to God.

It’s one thing for a “Messianic Gentile” to say that, as a matter of conscience and personal commitment, they have taken on board behaviors such as refraining from eating Leviticus 11 “treif,” praying with a siddur, and wearing tzitzit, but it’s another thing entirely to say that, according to their own understanding of the Bible, they declare that all believers, Gentile and Jew, must perform the same mitzvot!

That’s rather cheeky.

Particularly when, based on the rather lengthy block of text I quoted at the start of this blog post, the Jewish disciples were still trying to figure out what to do with the Gentile disciples back when all this first got started. Full Torah obligation for all non-Jewish believers certainly wasn’t the obvious conclusion at which the Jewish Apostles arrived. In fact, James said that it seemed not only good to the Council, but to the Holy Spirit as well (Acts 15:28), that the full Torah lifestyle not be dumped upon the Gentiles as a whole. Further, the non-Jewish disciples not only didn’t mind not being obligated to the weight of Torah, they were actually happy about it.

So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. –Acts 15:30-32 (ESV)

PaulMaybe the movement to bring the Gentiles into discipleship with the Jewish Messiah never reached a point where matters of identity and practice were resolved before the destruction of the Temple and the final, tragic exile of the majority of Jews from their homeland. Those events paved the way for a “Gentile takeover” of this Messianic Jewish sect (which would eventually evolve into what we call “Christianity” today), such that theology and history would be re-written to remove Judaism and Jews from devotion to Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

For twenty centuries, the original vision of Paul and Peter was lost or at least significantly distorted, and only in the last few decades has their been a modern attempt at restoration.

But now we have a new problem. Originally, it was up to the Jewish sect administered by James from Jerusalem to apply a set of standards to the non-Jewish disciples, defining identity and limits to their religious practice. Today, the cart has come before the horse, so to speak. The non-Jewish disciples are doing their own defining and identifying, and to that end, summarily ignoring or disagreeing with how Jews define themselves, their participation in the Messiah, and the mechanism for practice of non-Jewish attachment to the God of Israel.

It was Paul who attempted to resolve the “Gentile identity problem” by bringing Abraham into the picture, but that story exceeds the scope of this “extra meditation”. I only want to point out that we haven’t come to the point where we fully understand how a non-Jewish person is supposed to relate to Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah, or for that matter, how (or if) our religious practice relates to Judaism. I certainly think that mainstream Christianity has missed a few things along the way, but I think that many non-Jews in the Hebrew Roots movement have “over-corrected” by jumping from a “no-Law” position to a “the Torah is totally mine” stance.

Who are we among the nations who have our identity in Christ? The Bible has a lot to say about the answer, but it doesn’t say everything, at least in a language we can understand. Once the book that has inspired this missive is available to be discussed openly, I hope to write more about this topic.

Until then, let us conclude that each of us is making personal decisions about how we choose to practice our faith relative to how “Jewish” we behave. We just don’t know how or if those decisions mesh with the intentions and desires of God for the people of the nations of the world. We certainly don’t know enough to walk into a church and condemn everyone present for not wearing kippot and tallitot.

I wrote a Part 2 to this article. I hope you’ll read it.