Tag Archives: Christ

Does Jesus Matter?

Why Native American religions, when scholars acknowledge that Native American tribes do not traditionally distinguish between religion and the rest of life?

-William T. Cavanaugh
Chapter 1: The Anatomy of the Myth”
The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict

But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Romans 10:8-9 (ESV)

Disclaimer: This is a long “meditation.” I’m sorry. I couldn’t make my point and keep it under 2600 words. Just letting you know.

I’ve been reading Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence, albeit somewhat slowly, but I came to a complete stop when I read the quote from his book I placed at the top of this blog post. Cavanaugh is trying to refute those people who believe that religion is inherently more violent and prone to causing wars than secular systems of finance or government. One of his main criticisms against this viewpoint is the lack of definition for what is a “religion” which, on the surface may seem easily defined, but in the world of scholarly analysis, is pretty difficult to pin down.

But look at what he says about Native American religions. “Native American tribes do not traditionally distinguish between religion and the rest of life.” But shouldn’t it be that way for all other religions as well?

If you’re a Christian, you may be nodding your head and agreeing that your faith is your life, but I think for a great many of us, we tend to compartmentalize what we do into “religious” and “secular” activities. When you go to church, it’s “religious.” When you pay your taxes or take out the garbage, it’s “secular.” A lot of Christians say that their faith “isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.” If that’s so, then are there times in your day-to-day life when your relationship with Jesus doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter? If you are married, are there times when your marriage or your spouse doesn’t matter or doesn’t factor into your decision-making, particularly when those decisions don’t have a direct connection to your being married?

Who we are in Christ should permeate every single part of our lives, everything we do, every thought we have. It was Paul who wrote (see 2 Corinthians 10:5) that we must “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” If our Christianity is supposed to function down to the level of our very thoughts, shouldn’t it be ingrained into everything else we are as well?

I’ve been participating in a number of online discussions, including one at Gene Shlomovich’s blog Daily Minyan, regarding the relevance of the Mosaic covenant between God and the Israelites as applied to non-Jewish Christians today. The principle question is, do Christians become obligated to the Law of Moses when we first confess faith in Christ?

I know the vast majority of Christians (and probably Jews) will immediately answer, “No.” But then, most Christians believe that the Law or Torah of Moses was wholly replaced by the grace of Jesus Christ when our Master died on the cross. I disagree with this “replacement theology” (and those of you who’ve been reading my blog for long know this quite well) and believe that the Jewish people continue to be bound to the covenant they made with God at Sinai.

But Christian brothers and sisters, you and I weren’t at Sinai. Our covenant connection to God isn’t dependant on that event, even though there were non-Israelites, the so-called “mixed multitude” of people groups, who also stood at the mountain and agreed to obey God in all things.

However, there are some folks out there who believe that the non-Israelites at Sinai sets a precedent that not only allows, but actually requires all Christians to be fully compliant (or as much as we can be living outside Israel, and without a Temple, Priesthood, and Sanhedrin) to the 613 commandments that the Jews must perform as a condition of their covenant with God through Moses.

But that raises one big, giant red flag for me. If all any Gentile ever had to do to have a covenant relationship with God was to perform the mitzvot as a Jew would, then why do we need Jesus in order to enter into relationship with God and be saved?

This issue is actually more complicated than I’m making it here, but the details would result in an impossibly long blog post. Also, I’m not historian, linguist, or Bible scholar, so I lack the educational “chops” to fully explore all of the niggling little details this topic brings up. On the other hand, any “ordinary person” should be able to discuss their faith in a reasonably intelligent manner without having to possess multiple advanced degrees. If we can’t, then we must relegate ourselves to the status of “sheep” and be at the mercy of anyone who comes up with a theology based on some understanding of what certain Hebrew and Greek words might mean in English.

(I have to say here that I am not denigrating scholarship and education. Far from it. I possess one graduate and two undergraduate university degrees, so I value education and learning very highly. However, it is important to search out and study the findings of legitimate scholars in religious studies. You won’t always find them involved in online religious debates in the blogosphere.)

Let’s get down to it. If Torah obedience is the primary key to entering into covenant relationship with God, then why don’t we all just convert to Judaism? More to the point, why did God bother to send Jesus Christ to be born, live, teach, suffer, die, be resurrected, and ascend to Heaven? That’s a lot of trouble and certainly it wasn’t any fun for Jesus. All God had to do was send a prophet to go to the Gentiles (someone like Paul perhaps) and say, “Convert to Judaism and you will be saved.”

But that’s not what Paul said. And that’s not what Jesus said. I don’t believe Jesus, Paul, Peter, or anyone else said that the Jews must give up Judaism and become Christians, since even Jesus, Paul, and Peter remained Jews, sacrificed at the Temple, and kept kosher throughout their entire lives. I do believe though, that something had to be done for the rest of the people in the world who were worshiping mute idols of stone, wood, and metal.

But if the Gentile pagans didn’t convert to Judaism, what did they become when they abandoned polytheism and began to exclusively worship the God of Israel through faith in the Jewish Messiah?

For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. –Acts 11:26 (ESV)

The term “Christians” could more or less be thought of as “Messianics” as well, or people who are disciples of the Jewish Messiah. But it doesn’t translate into “Jews” and it doesn’t translate into “Israelites” or any other such thing. What the believers in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah were called was directly connected to his Messianic identity and what we can think of as the “Messianic” covenant; the covenant that makes it specifically possible for non-Jews/non-Israelites to come into relationship with God “without surrendering their ethnic, racial, or national identity as Gentiles.”

If we were expected to surrender our “Gentileness” and covert to Judaism or in some manner or fashion, become obligated to the full mitzvot of Torah, even while retaining our Gentile identity, why would Paul say this?

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. –Galatians 5:2-3 (ESV)

He said something even more dramatic on the same subject:

I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. –Galatians 2:21 (ESV)

Galatians by D.T. LancasterGranted, Paul’s letter to the Galatians is amazingly difficult to understand (see D. Thomas Lancaster’s book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians for an excellent analysis of this letter) but it’s hard to get around the idea that Paul was severely “discouraging” the non-Jewish members of the churches in Galatia from converting to Judaism (being circumcised) because doing so would place them under the full weight of the Torah mitzvot. Also, if the Gentiles thought they had to convert to Judaism and take on board the entire Torah as an obligation in order to be justified, it would make Christ’s bloody, humiliating, agonizing death on the cross completely meaningless.

So I just don’t see how Jesus is requiring every non-Jewish person who comes to him as a disciple to be obligated to the Torah of Moses.

Having said all that, is the Torah such a bad thing? No, absolutely not. Paul knew that even Jews were justified by faith and not by works of the law. (Galatians 2:15-16)

Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. –Galatians 3:21

Paul didn’t abolish the law and neither did Jesus (Matthew 5:17). In fact, Jesus said that “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (v. 18) As far as I can tell, Heaven and Earth are still with us and not everything the Messiah was supposed to accomplish has happened yet. So the law continues to exist.

I can confidently say Jewish people remain obligated to the mitzvot, both in Second Temple times and today. This, in my opinion, includes the Jews who have come to faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Jesus never got rid of the Mosaic covenant or replaced it with a newer covenant. I do believe the newer “Messianic” or “Davidic” covenant ratifies the older ones for the Jews so the Messianic promises are realized for them in Christ.

What about the Torah for the rest of us? Modern (non-Messianic) Jews believe that the rest of the people of the earth are obligated to what is called the Seven Laws of Noah and that the covenant of God made with Noah (see Genesis 9) puts all of us in relation with God as long as we obey our Noahide obligations.

But that doesn’t take anything we know from the Gospels or Epistles into account. The Messiah’s mission was not just to restore Israel nationally and spiritually, but to bring the rest of the world into relationship with God. That isn’t dependant on Noah or on Moses but only on Christ.

I’ve heard it said that the Messianic covenant with the Gentiles “travels back in time” as it were, so that the non-Jews at Sinai were brought into relationship with God through Christ and then obligated to the Torah mitzvot as a consequence, but to employ Occam’s razor, when two hypotheses are in competition, the one that makes the fewest assumptions is more likely to be true. The “time traveling” covenant hypothesis creates a lot of hoops to jump through just to support a theory.

Moses didn’t tell the Israelites that they had to obey God in all things and believe in the coming Messiah in order for God to be their God. This is what happened right before God gave the Torah at Sinai:

So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord. –Exodus 19:7-8 (ESV)

Because of faith in God, the Israelites unreservedly agreed to obey everything God told them to do, including everything He hadn’t told them yet. Their agreement is the Mosaic covenant and the Torah mitzvot are the conditions applied to each party subject to that agreement (the Israelites and God). Belief in the future Messiah isn’t specifically mentioned so at that point in time (I know, mysticism could probably “explain” this but I’m trying to stick to the mechanics of the text), Israelites and the Gentile “mixed multitude,”  because of their faith, agreed to obey God and in order to fulfill their agreement, they obeyed all the conditions of the Torah.

But the mixed multitude who became “alien sojourners” among native-born Israelites have disappeared from history. We can argue back and forth that their lives in relation with God did somehow involve the Messiah and absolutely required mitzvot obedience that was identical to the Israelites, but what of the Gentiles who wanted to attach themselves to Israel during and after the earthly ministry of Jesus. Were there “sojourners” in those days or were they “God-fearers” like Cornelius the Roman Centurion? (see Acts 10) What was their status and was Torah obedience required?

While I think we can make a pretty good argument that even Jewish believers in Christ retain their obligation to God relative to Sinai, that seems to be unique to the descendents of Jacob. I do believe that the very first Gentile Christians probably worshipped God in a way that looked much more “Jewish” than we do today, but that’s just a guess. We only have “hints” of Gentile observance that looks Jewish in scripture, (see the aforementioned Cornelius in Acts 10 for example) but no “smoking gun” pointing to Paul teaching Gentiles to say the Shema, wear tzitzit, or lay tefillin. We never actually see an illustration of the Gentile Christians behaving exactly like the Jewish believers in all of the mitzvot.

the-joy-of-torahI don’t see any harm in Christians performing many or even most of the mitzvot. After all. The commandments have a great deal to do with feeding the hungry, treating even the neighbor you don’t like with respect and dignity, and loving God. In fact, if you actually read all 613 commandments, for those that we can actually perform outside of Israel, and without a Temple in Jerusalem, a Priesthood, a “Biblical” court system, I can’t find much that would violate a Christian’s faith.

I think it is mandatory to feed the hungry, to find shelter for the homeless, to comfort the widow, to make sure the orphan is taken care of. If you’re a Christian and you aren’t seeking social justice and performing acts of mercy and kindness, then there’s something wrong with your faith and your lifestyle. Recently, I’ve encouraged Christians to seek God and repent of sins during the month of Elul. I think it’s perfectly fine for Christians to participate in the High Holidays, light candles on Chanukah, eat the Passover meal with their Jewish brothers, count the Omer, celebrate Shavuot/Pentecost, and build a Sukkah.

Certainly Jesus did all these things in accordance to the halachah that was normative for the Jews of the late Second Temple period. Perhaps (though there’s no way to know for sure) even Cornelius the Roman built a sukkah. It don’t think it’s an outrageous idea.

I do think, believe, and endorse with all my heart, mind, and spirit, that Jesus, or Yeshua as he’s called in Hebrew, absolutely, positively must be the center of our faith and covenant connection with God. Without Christ and the specifics of the Davidic covenant that allows us to be in relation to God and to call Jesus Lord and King, we among the nations are lost. We have nothing. Neither Jew nor Gentile has ever been justified by obedience to Torah commandments. As Paul said, we’re justified by faith.

Jesus does matter. He matters to anyone who wants a relationship with God.

Make Christ your everything. He is not irrelevant. He is indispensible. He is the key. He is the vine and we are his branches.

Who Are We in Christ, Part 3

Dear Rabbi,

If G-d is a mystery to us, beyond human reason and logic, then how can we relate to Him?

Answer:

You’re right, G-d is essentially unknowable. Yes, He makes Himself known to us through His miracles, His prophets, His Torah, and by the very act of creating and sustaining our world and our very existence. But none of that can really provide information that defines who He is. Because He cannot be defined. In the language of the Kabbalists, He is infinite, even beyond “the beginning that cannot be known.”

So how can we pray or have any relationship with a being so unknowable, so undefinable, He can hardly be called a being?

The answer is because our relationship with G-d is not measured by our capacity to understand Him, nor by heightened consciousness or any sublime ecstasy we claim to have from the experience of His presence. Our relationship to G-d is measured by what we do, by our firm adherence to the morals that He has established for us and by our integrity in our dealings with others.

One who claims he has one G-d, but cheats his fellow, has in fact two gods. One who claims he is godless, but believes in a fixed and immutable moral law is in fact a believer. Ultimately, G-d is in your life when you act G-dly—consistently following His ways in all you do. That is why He has given us His Torah, so that by following these instructions, we can bond with Him in our daily lives.

G-d is not an idea that can be grasped with the mind. G-d is real, and reality is grasped by real deeds.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“How Can I Relate to an Unknowable G-d?”
Learning and Values
Chabad.org

I know it seems strange to begin a blog post about “who we are in Christ” by quoting a question to and answer from a Chabad Rabbi, but bear with me. It’s relevant.

I wasn’t going to write a part 3 to this series (if you haven’t done so already, see part 1 and part 2 before continuing here), but I received a rather tongue-in-cheek request to do so:

Your gonna have to write a part 3 cause all the Christians are gonna be wondering what the hell your talking about Jew and gentile identity and why you aren’t talking about the spiritual blessings in the heavenlies and the freedom from condemnation and having the miraculous signs and authority to cast out demons and living forever etc. how does all the chiristian good stuff fit in here?

I’m only kinda joking. When I hear “in Christ” it makes me think of the time I spent in church!

OK, not much to build on from those statements, but it did make me realize that I didn’t provide much of a resolution to the question. On the other hand, there may not be much of a resolution to the question. That’s disappointing to hear, but that’s the nature of a relationship with God. We don’t get all the answers, at least in an intellectual fashion. To paraphrase Rabbi Freeman (and quote James T. Kirk), “We learn by doing.”

But what do we do?

For some Christians, the answer is, “we don’t have to do anything. We’re saved by grace.”

That’s true, but it’s hardly the end of the story…well, it is for some.

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” –Luke 23:39-43 (ESV)

For some Christians, this is the quintessential picture of salvation by grace. The thief on the cross, dying by inches with Jesus, had no time or ability to do anything except believe and confess his faith…and then expire by slow torture. He couldn’t sing praises (he would have been lucky to even catch his breath enough to make a whisper) to God, give to the poor, visit the sick, or anything else in response to his faith. He came to faith, confessed, and shortly thereafter, died.

And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, even if you come to faith at age 20 and then wait with your faith until age 80 or so to die.

But is who we are in the Messiah just realization of his reality, coming to faith, confessing, and then patiently waiting for the bus to Heaven?

OK, OK. You go to church on Sunday, listen to a sermon, sing hymns, give money when they pass around the plate, go to a Bible class, have coffee and donuts, and then go home. Maybe you go to a dinner and Bible study at your church on Wednesday nights, too. You celebrate Christmas. You get really worked up for Easter.

But is that it?

An observant Jew, who lives out religious details in a day-to-day manner, performing the mitzvot and following halachah might commit more “acts of righteousness” in a week than you will in an entire year.

Yes, I’m being unfair, but how many Christians out there believe that all there is to their faith is being saved by grace, going to church, and getting by until they finally die and go to Heaven to be with Jesus?

broken-crossProbably quite a few. More’s the pity.

That’s why it’s important to ask questions like, “who are we in Christ” and then start pursuing the answer with all available energy and concern. Some Christians won’t get this only because it doesn’t affect their salvation. But what if it’s not just all about salvation? What if “being saved” is only the beginning of the journey, not the conclusion?

Jonathan Stone recently wrote a blog post called Pilgrim’s Progress in which he discussed the matter of spiritual growth (or lack thereof, in my opinion). Stone says in part:

All around us the world is falling apart. We are overwhelmed with constant news of economic collapse, natural disasters, genocides, political wars, all sorts of crimes, starvation, extreme poverty and the sort. All of which reminds me of this, but you get the point. It is NOT the call of the pilgrim to stand idly by while people’s lives are shattered. However, it is the pilgrim’s call to continue on the path. And that path is a path that gets brighter and brighter as one progresses along.

This is a call to actually do something with your life of faith!

Wow! Really? What? What makes the path “get brighter?”

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 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 25:31-40 (ESV)

You know, if you continue reading verses 41-46, you sort of get the idea that what you actually do for other people does affect your salvation. If you don’t feed the hungry, visit the sick and people in prison, and so on, you can expect an answer from Jesus like,“Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

If you claim to love God and still cheat someone or steal from someone, you have two gods.

Oh wow!

So, let’s go over this again. You get saved and then what are you supposed to do (assuming you aren’t nailed to a cross by big, metal spikes and getting ready to die)?

Feed the hungry.

Give water to the thirsty.

Welcome the stranger.

Clothe the unclothed.

Visit the sick and those in prison.

Don’t take that as a hard and fast “religious formula” whereby you perform exactly those deeds and because of that are promised a life in the world to come. Consider those behaviors as fitting into this general category:

And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. –Matthew 22:39 (ESV)

ReflectionA day or so ago, I was talking about love; how we are to love each other and how Jesus loves all of us. Paul described this kind of love in Ephesians 5:25-32 when he compared a husband’s love for his wife to Christ’s love for the church. Paul called it “a profound mystery.”

Here’s another one:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” –John 13:34-35 (ESV)

Add to the list, someone who makes peace with fellow Christians and who loves them.

So who are we in Christ?

We are people who love those who are like us and those who are unlike us. We treat everyone the way we want to be treated as human beings. If someone has needs like food, water, or companionship, we do our best to provide for those needs, not just because the other person needs them, but for the sake of our love for God and His love for us. When we show this kind of love, we’re telling people this is how God loves all human beings. Our actions are our witness and speak much, much louder than all the sermons ever spoken and all the religious tracts and pamphlets ever shoved into undesiring hands.

Now compare what the Bible says you’re supposed to be to that person you see in the bathroom mirror every morning. We know what Jesus says about who you’re supposed to be in Christ. Are you that person?

You should be able to answer that question now.

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.

The Messiah’s Father

It’s striking, then, that the Gospels explain that Jesus was not from David’s house, nor a male descendent of any but God, as he was born of a virgin. I’ve already explained it is anathema to Judaism for the divine to be in any way mortal or otherwise individuated as a human man. But if we set this stricture aside and take the Gospels at face value, already it seems they have contradicted the prophecies.

Some Christians have explained that Mary was from the bloodline of King David, but the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both specifically trace Jesus’ genealogy to David through Joseph. Not only that, even if Mary was descended from David, Jewish law traces genealogy paternally. Jesus still would not qualify as the messiah, at leat by the standard set by the prophecies he was supposed to fulfill.

-Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
“Chapter 30: A Davidic Messiah?” (pg 173)
Kosher Jesus

I’ve already written my review of Rabbi Boteach’s book, but questions remain. This one is a doozy, at least for me. I’m sure some New Testament scholar can easily brush away the Rabbi’s objections to the lineage of Jesus, but I have no way of evaluating his words except at face value. My understanding of the genealogies of Jesus provided in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, is that they establish that Jesus is a male heir of the throne of David, but Rabbi Boteach says the opposite. He states in his book that both of these genealogies actually prove that Jesus could not be a proper descendant of David and thus, he could not possibly fulfill the Messianic prophesies. It means that Jesus could not possibly be the Messiah; the Christ, as we have been taught in the Christian church.

That’s pretty disturbing, but as I said, I’m sure New Testament scholars can resolve this apparently iron-clad supposition that Rabbi Boteach offers…can’t they?

Before answering, let’s have a look at the offending passages, including Rabbi Boteach’s remarks about each one.

Boteach states (pg 174): Matters are further complicated by the fact that the genealogies in Matthew and Luke contradict one another. They even disagree regarding which branch of David’s descendants Jesus came from. Matthew says he was from Solomon’s line…

Throughout his book, Boteach quoted from the NIV Bible when referencing any New Testament text, but I’ll be using the ESV translation:

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah… –Matthew 1:1-6

Rabbi Boteach emphasized (as I did above) the fact that Jesus is, according to Matthew, descended from David through Solomon. Here’s more of the Rabbis’ comments:

Matthew concludes his genealogy by linking David and Solomon with Jesus: “And Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.” (pg 174)

Now Boteach turns to Luke’s genealogy of Jesus:

Luke differs, claiming that Jesus was of Nathan’s line (pg 174):

Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph, the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er, the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim, the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David… –Luke 3:23-31

I’ve added Boteach’s emphasis again, which he uses as proof that neither genealogy could be used to establish Jesus as the Messiah. He cites 1 Chronicles 22:9-10 to immediately dismiss Luke’s genealogy of Jesus, since it clearly states that the Messiah will be descended from David through Solomon (though for some odd reason, Boteach continues to use the NIV translation rather than the JPS or Stone Edition of the Tanakh). Luke clearly has Jesus being descended from David through Nathan, rather than Solomon, as is required according to Boteach, so that, as they say, is that.

Yet Boteach says that Matthew’s genealogy also disproves the “Messiahship” of Jesus because of verse 17:

So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.

To make this neat numerological passage fit so that there are “fourteen generations” between these three epic events, Boteach says that Matthew had to remove any mention of four kings that should be in the line between Solomon and Jesus, given how Matthew has structured his list: Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah, and Jehoiakim. Once these four kings are added back into the genealogy, there’s a big problem.

Boteach continues (pg 176):

Elsewhere in the Bible it is made clear that Jeconiah is the son of Jehoiakim, as in Jeremiah here it is written, “…when he carried Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim king of Judah into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” (Jeremiah 27:20 NIV) Sickened by the idolatrous and blasphemous misbehavior of Jeconiah, God curses him and all of his descendents. God specifically vows that “none of his offspring will prosper, none will sit on the throne of David or rule anymore in Judah.” (Jeremiah 22:30 NIV)

If Jesus was indeed descended from Jeconiah, he is included in the curse and forbidden from being the King Messiah as described in the Hebrew Bible. Both New Testament genealogies therefore disqualify Jesus from being the messiah: Luke because the messiah must come from Solomon, and Matthew because he must not come from Jeconiah.

This may be a common argument used by Jewish anti-missionaries and for all I know, these genealogical problems may have long since been laid to rest by Christian respondents, but I don’t know that for a fact. There’s a lot that I don’t know, which I suppose is what Rabbi Boteach is counting on in his Christian audience. On the other hand, for all I know, he may have just delivered a devastating blow to Christian claims of Jesus being the Messiah based on Matthew’s and Luke’s lists. If Boteach has, in fact, effectively proven that Jesus cannot be the Messiah as the church states, then he has unraveled the very fabric of Christian faith in Jesus as the Moshiach. Being the Messiah is inexorably tied to Jesus being the Son of the Most High God, Savior of the world, and the one upon whom all our hopes are laid. If Jesus is not the Messiah; the Christ, then he isn’t anything else the church counts on for the salvation of our souls.

Since I can’t answer Boteach’s challenge, perhaps you can. How can we look at the genealogies listed by both Matthew and Luke and say that they really do prove Jesus is the Messiah? The comments box is now open and ready.

The Return of the Jewish King

PrayingAside from the vast numbers of Jews murdered during the Holocaust, the scars that the experience left on survivors was unimaginable. One of the champions of the survivors was the Beis Yisrael of Gur, zt”l. He himself had plenty to cry about—he could remember his one hundred thousand chassidim in Europe before the war, virtually all of them murdered, including many of his close relatives—yet he was a beacon of hope to survivors. He always found exactly the right approach to pull downtrodden survivors out of their despair and give them new hope.

“In Arachin 29 we find that a Jew may not be sold as a slave during times when there is no Yovel. This teaches a powerful concept. An eved ivri cannot be sold into slavery unless there is a clearly defined end to his indenture. We see that a Jew is not forced to endure a load of tests that are harder than he can bear. Even when his hardships are decreed, they must have a set end, a clear-cut time when he will be delivered from the adversity. This is the meaning of the principle that God creates the medicine before allowing the blow to fall. There is always a way for every Jew to emerge from despair and begin again, to learn how to live a positive life despite the horrors and trauma he may have experienced. Every exile must have an end!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Every Exile Must Have an End”
Arachin 29

The hardships and loss suffered by the Jewish people across the long span of history is just appalling. One can hardly think of this topic and not immediately have images of the horrors of the Holocaust spring forth in our memories. The past 2,000 years of the chronicles of Judaism particularly read like a tragedy worthy of the greatest classical poets and playwrights. And yet that suffering is real. The loss of life, property, and dignity are terribly real. But because of God’s promises to the Jewish people and His graciousness and mercy, the Jews yet survive, against all odds, as a people and a faith, and continue to honor the God who created both the tormented and the tormentors.

Christianity has been hard at work taking from the Jews what does not belong to us.

To be perfectly blunt, I must say the Christians have robbed the Jews! And perhaps what is worse is that this thievery has been encouraged by theologians, pastors, and even Sunday School teachers, where small children are taught to sing the song, “Every promise in the book is mine, every chapter, every verse, every line.”

Every promise in Scripture in some way benefits Christians, but it is not all promised to Christians. Sometimes the thievery has been inadvertent and unintentional. It’s like thinking that the raincoat hanging in the office closet is yours for wearing home because of unexpected showers. Hopefully, you will discover the raincoat belongs to a fellow worker and you will restore it. It is not as if Christians do not have the greatest promise of God, which is I John 2:25: “And this is the promise that He hath promised us, even eternal life.”

-Moishe Rosen
from the Foreward to Pastor Barry Horner’s book
Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged

The irony is that we Christians have not only robbed the Jews, we have robbed ourselves. What was the Christianity taught by Paul, Peter, and the rest of the Jewish Apostles to the non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Jesus? We don’t really know. We don’t have access to the unedited and unfiltered teachings that underlie the New Testament text we read in our Bibles today. It’s not just the words in the Bible, but what almost 2,000 years of Christian theology and doctrine has taught us what that text is supposed to mean. We take it as a foregone conclusion that “every promise in the book is mine” but we don’t really know. We are taught to believe, so that whenever our assumptions and our standard Christian traditions are challenged, we really think that what we believe is actually fact instead of interpretation.

If circumstances had been different and there hadn’t been a savage separation between Jewish Messianism and Gentile Christianity in the early, formative centuries of the church, what would things be like today? Would there be a thriving Messianic Judaism that stands alongside Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism? Would Gentile Christianity still seek to find its truth from within a Jewish interpretive context? Would we all still cease our toil on Shabbat, and would Christians along with religious Jews, pray at set times to the Maker of Heaven and Earth?

There’s no way to know, of course, and I’m forced to believe that the Christian/Jewish schism is all part of God’s plan and that the “time of the Gentiles” has to become “full” before the Jews are able to recognize the face and identity of the Moshiach. Paul lamented the suffering of his own people in Romans 11 and registered deep regret that some Jews would be temporarily separated from the Messiah for the sake of we Gentiles. I have to believe this “disconnect” was somehow necessary, and yet like so many other parts of God’s plan for humanity, I must confess a gross lack of understanding for almost everything that is going on around me in my world of faith.

And yet faith and trust are the only tools I have to sustain me and without them, I am lost, along with a disbelieving world. Where is God? Why is there such suffering? Why hasn’t Jesus returned yet? Where is the Moshiach? What is he waiting for? If not now, when?

Today is Sunday as I write these words and Christians in churches all over the world smile and sing and pat themselves on the back that they are saved by Grace and not from works. They congratulate each other over being inheritors of all of the promises in the Bible and it never occurs to them that they have missed so much.

At this point, I must stop in my “rant” and recognize the enormous good that has been done in the name of Christ throughout the world and across church history. Many have been fed and clothed. Many have heard the “good news” of salvation for the sake of Christ and the unsaved. Many churches have been built, many homes have been built, many children have received medical care, many grieving hearts have been comforted. There have always been those in the church who have learned the core lessons of the Master and performed them with unswerving love and devotion. There have always been those who have labored and suffered in anonymity, without titles, recognition, or receiving any honors, who give glory to God and not to themselves. For all of the faults in the church, there are many who, though they do not recognize the “Jewishness” of Jesus, carry on the mitzvot he commanded to always do good to others, to pick up their burdens, and to follow Christ where ever he leads them. Praise be to God for their faithfulness and trust.

And yet, the early “church fathers” took it upon themselves to reinvent history and the Bible in the image of the nations, removing any and every trace of Judaism. In spite of their efforts, the faithful in Christ have continued to work as the Master taught in the Gospels. But sadly, we have toiled under many a false teaching as we struggle to live a life, not by man’s doctrine, but in obedience to Jesus. By God’s miracles, many Christians were not blinded by the man-made theology of supersessionism. But we still see the Bible through “Christian-tinted glasses” and absolutely don’t realize that we’re wearing them, imagining instead that our vision is crystal clear and not “through a glass darkly.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) And yet, as long as a single Christian feeds even one hungry mother and heals the wounds of one injured child, there is hope.

The irony for many, is that when Jesus returns, he will not be here to inaugurate an age of Christian domination over the earth, but to restore Israel to her rightful place before the nations and before God. Only then will we all, Israel and the disciples of the nations alike, be able to have the peace that has been prophesied.

…but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken. –Micah 4:4

Only then will we all, Jew and Gentile alike, sit with each other in peace at the table of the patriarchs.

I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven… –Matthew 8:11

May Jesus the Messiah come soon and in our day, and may we truly be prepared to welcome him, not as we imagine him to be, but as he truly is: Yeshua HaMoshiach, the King of the Jews. Then the “exile” of both the Jew and the Gentile from the presence of our Master will come to an end.