Tag Archives: context

The Christianization of Acts 15

phariseesSome men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

Acts 15:1 (NASB)

In Acts 15:1-2 and 15:24, Now with what Satanically-inspired and dogmatic false teaching did these “certain men from Judaea” try to infect the church at Antioch, and why according to Galatians 2:4-5? (emph. mine)

-From the notes for Sunday School class on Acts 15:1-21
For September 29, 2013

Part of the Return to the Tent of David Series

This past Sunday, Pastor’s sermon was on Acts 15:1-21. I knew from our conversations that I was going to disagree on some of his points, and I knew by “doing my homework” for Sunday school class, that I was going to disagree with my teacher.

I’m making this part of my Returning to the Tent of David series, since it chronicles how I’m doing in my church after nearly a year. I can’t say that in last week’s Sunday school experience, I covered myself in glory.

I know my teacher tends to be rather dogmatic and inflexible on his points, but I felt he was so far off base with his “Satanically-inspired” comment directed to “the men from Judea” we find in Acts 15:1, that I had to speak up. I’ve expressed opinions that conflicted with his in the past, but usually they’re easily set aside, however there was real tension in the air as we had our exchange of words this time. I promised that this issue would be the only one I’d argue with him about and kept silent for the rest of class. Boy, was that a challenge.

There was another fellow there who is older, both chronologically and as a believer, and wiser, who also took our teacher to task about certain of his assumptions. Because this gentleman has been a long-time church member and is well-respected, I think he was tolerated more easily than I am.

Which brings me to a point that I struggled with when I first returned to church. Just how long would it be before I’m accepted within the ranks of the church as a “regular?” The answer may be “never.” Yes, most Wednesday evenings find me in Pastor’s office for a one-on-one discussion on the book of Galatians and the interface between fundamental Christianity and my understanding of Messianic Judaism, but that doesn’t necessarily add to my “cred” with the congregation as a whole.

Every time I open my mouth, I risk alienating someone. I know my teacher struggled with my idea that the “men from Judea” not only weren’t “Satanically-inspired” but had a legitimate theological concern, but who knows how many other people in that class were equally put out by my comments? No one else said a word.

There is such a misconceptualization about what happened in Acts 15 and the relationship between Torah (law) and saving grace that it’s hard to get enough information expressed to correct the errors. The basic argument is that you are only saved by grace and not through obedience to the Torah, which is true, but since the Law doesn’t save, the assumption is that it is of no use at all and thus is bad, wrong, awful, and aren’t we glad James and the boys made the decision to get rid of it once and for all. Most Christians can’t see that for a Jewish believer, yes faith saves, but this doesn’t annul the Sinai covenant and the command to live a certain lifestyle in obedience to God.

My frustration in this situation was compounded by the Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) model of teaching being used by my instructor. It emphasizes getting the maximum amount of class notes presented with a minimum of questions and interactions between teacher and student. Sure, teacher asks if we have any questions, but the class has about sixty seconds to respond before being shut down and the next point in the notes being addressed. Any serious attempt at debate over a questionable item in the teaching gets almost no “air time.”

ancient_beit_dinNot only did I press my point that the men from Judea had good reason to make the statements they did (yes, they were wrong, but it was going to be an uphill battle to convince most first century Jewish authorities that Gentiles didn’t have to be circumcised and convert to Judaism in order to have a saving relationship with God), but that the “private meeting” (Acts 15:6-11) involving the apostles and elders was actually a judicial body attempting to make a legal decision (akin to the function of a Beit Din) about how to admit Gentiles into a wholly Jewish religious stream as equal members and not require conversion.

How do you see Peter’s wisdom as he waited God’s timing before speaking?

-Class notes referring to Acts 15:7-11

If this was a legal proceeding, which makes a lot of sense to me, then Peter’s wisdom and God’s timing had less influence than the idea of a series of witnesses each giving testimony one at a time. It just happened to be Peter’s turn to testify. If there was any cross talk or overlapping discussions, they were probably analogous to how spectators in a modern courtroom can sometimes get out of hand and start talking. At that point, the Judge has to regain order.

I won’t quote from all of the notes for this class but they are a testimony to the “Christianization” of the Bible and in this particular case, Acts 15. This is not unlike what I previously said about the Rabbinization of Abraham, where the Jewish sages anachronistically apply Rabbinic concepts to the lives of Abraham and the other patriarchs. It’s also akin to what my teacher was speaking against, the “Judaizing” of the Gentile believers.

In each episode of FFOZ TV: A Promise of What is to Come, First Fruits of Zion teacher Toby Janicki strongly emphasizes the absolute necessity of reading the Jewish Biblical texts from the Jewish perspective of the original writers and audience. While Christians may not realize it on the surface, the New Testament texts are Jewish. Reading them through “Christian-colored lens” will produce a false effect, and lead to lots of misunderstanding.

But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”

Acts 15:5 (NASB)

In his sermon, Pastor said that the Pharisees were the “fundamentalists” of their day and he further said that if we lived in those days (and were Jewish), we, that is, the people in his church, would be Pharisees. He said that Jesus had issues with those Pharisees who started making up their own extra-Biblical rules, but Pastor praised the Pharisees as the movement in first century Judaism that supported using the Bible (Torah) as the guide to righteous living.

My Sunday school teacher uses the works of Pastor and theologian John MacArthur as the main source material for his classes. I praise MacArthur for his efforts to direct Christians back to reading the Bible, but in many other ways, he drives me nuts. According to my teacher, he said the “men from Judea” we find in Acts 15:1 and the believing Pharisees we see in Acts 15:5 are two separate groups with two separate perspectives and agendas.

I, on the other hand, believe they may have been the same or similar enough to have identical concerns and the legitimate question of what to do with the Gentiles pouring into the Jewish religious movement of “the Way.”

bang-head-hereAfter almost a year of being back in church, last Sunday’s “Tent of David” experience for me was one of almost beating my head against a brick wall. It’s frustrating to see things so clearly from a particular perspective, and yet to be shut down so abruptly and completely by an alternate perspective that is greatly divorced from the ancient Jewish context of the ancient Jewish text.

I may be in a position to be making my voice heard, and I may even be gingerly choosing my moments and words in expressing my opinion, but will that ever result in people hearing and actually considering that opinion, or am I always going to on the outs with my “fellow Christians?”

Now, having said all that, there is a flip side to the coin, which I’ll present in an extra meditation later today.

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The Hollow Man

clickedIt clicked when I saw this photo. I realized what’s been bothering me all along. I finally got why I was counting time down. Why I was waiting for it all to end. Why I didn’t believe my life in the community of faith was ever going to last. I realized I didn’t belong. I wasn’t part of the whole. No matter how hard I tried, I’d always be on the outside looking in.

Let me explain.

In reading the Rudolph and Willitts book Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations, I found a confirmation of what I believed about Jewish/Christian relations on so many levels. It all made so much sense. Chapters 17, 18, and 19, written by Craig Keener, William Campbell, and Scott Hafemann respectively, all spoke of Jewish and Gentile interdependence within the body of Messiah, specifically accessing Paul’s letter to the Romans. I’ll write about those chapters in more detail some other time, and I believe that there is an interdependence between believing Jews and Gentiles, but there’s a puzzle to solve, at least for me. The contributors to the Rudolph/Willitts book universally present the Messianic Jewish movement as one that is a home to believing Jews who are ethnically, culturally, religiously, and experientially Jewish. You cannot separate the lifestyle of being Jewish from the person who is Jewish, regardless if they have come to faith in Jesus as Messiah or not.

However, for the vast amount of Gentiles who are believers, their culture is the church. I know there are multiple expressions of the Christian church in our world, but they all have one thing in common. Their culture isn’t even remotely Jewish. Jewish religious and lived culture isn’t even remotely Christian. It’s like two different worlds that are trying to intersect and as interrelated as they are in Messiah, I’m not sure how they’re ever going to fit together.

And then there’s me.

No matter who you are as a believer, you “fit” somewhere. There are Gentiles, just tons and tons of them, who fit extremely well in the church. I’m anticipating seeing a lot of them tomorrow morning, Sunday morning at the church I attend. They are all very comfortable where they are. I’m the only one who sticks out like a sore thumb.

No, don’t tell me to go to a Jewish religious venue. None are accessible to me and even if they were, I don’t fit in there, either. Even if I fit in, that wouldn’t “fit in” with my wife. She’d feel extremely uncomfortable with my being a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. And that’s what I’d be. My past participation in pseudo-Jewish Hebrew Roots wouldn’t even come close to preparing me for an actual Jewish cultural encounter.

I like to think of myself as a person with a foot in each of two worlds but the fact is, I am only standing in between them. I’m not in contact with either one. I don’t belong in either one. That isn’t to say I don’t believe, but faith and religion and worship don’t exist in a vacuum, they exist in community, and I don’t belong in any of them.

It’s like someone tried to transplant a heart into my chest, but my body is rejecting it. It doesn’t belong. It’s alien. Without it, I’ll die (metaphorically speaking, of course), but I’m not being nourished by it, either.

A friend of mine once said, don’t seek Christianity and don’t seek Judaism, but rather, seek an encounter with God. But how do I meet God without a context and a culture? People can’t experience God in raw, unshielded contact. We need an interface, layers of abstraction so we can make sense of what’s happening to us, so we won’t be obliterated by connecting to God. For Jews, that interface is Judaism, cultural, Talmudic, tradition-based Judaism. For Christians, that’s the church and all the culture and traditions that are attached to the various “Christianities” in our world.

But I don’t connect to either one. I don’t belong. That’s the problem. I can read the Bible, but if I read it in a Jewish or Christian framework, it seems alien. Only just plain reading it makes any sort of sense to me, but then I’m limited to my own experience. To access the sages and the experts, I have to apply a context, which puts me in contact with denomination, with doctrine, with theology, with culture, and while that seems to work for everyone else, it doesn’t work for me because their doctrine, theology, culture, and context doesn’t belong to me and I don’t belong to them.

Classic approach-avoidance syndrome or as put more plainly, can’t live with it and can’t live without it.

That’s why doing my homework for Sunday school seems like an exercise in emptiness. It’s a culture that I don’t relate to, a perspective that seems hollow. If I’m ever going to experience God, it will be somewhere outside religion and culture, but that’s impossible for a human being. So where does that leave a “hollow man?”

157 days.