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Review: John MacArthur on Judaism, Part 2

Now, I’ve entitled this portion, beginning in chapter 18 verse 18 through chapter 19 verse 7, we’ve entitle (sic) it From Judaism to Jesus because it does portray for us a transition. We have made the mention in past studies that the Book of Acts records for us transitions and we see the fading out of Judaism and the coming in of Christianity. In understanding this, we have to understand that it sometimes was a slow transition. Salvation is not a transition; it’s a momentary miracle. But losing all of the trappings of Judaism came a little slower. People would get saved and then find it hard to let go over everything, and so there was a certain amount of difficulty in making the transition from Judaism to Jesus. And as I said last week, we find that true very often today, even with Jews who come to Jesus Christ and find it difficult to break with patterns that were so much a part of Judaism.

Now, I think part of this is due to the fact, maybe most of it is due to the fact that Judaism in itself is such a distinct kind of life. Now, we could talk for a long time about the distinctions of Judaism and I don’t mean to do that, but in some generality to point out to you the distinctness of Judaism, in order that you might understand how difficult the transition comes about.

-John MacArthur
“From Judaism to Jesus, Part 2,” January 20, 1974
Commentary on Acts 18:24-28

I reviewed part one of this series last week and I can’t say I’ve received Pastor MacArthur’s rendering of ancient or modern Judaism with any sort of enthusiasm. MacArthur characterizes the Book of Acts as a chronicle of transition, literally “from Judaism to Jesus.” I couldn’t disagree more, but to give him a fair shake (to the best of my admittedly waning ability), I’ll continue to read the sermons of this series and offer my comments.

MacArthur says that the transition away from Judaism was really difficult for the Jewish people because of this:

For example, a Jewish town or a Jewish city or township or village, no matter whether it was centered right in the midst of a Pagan country or whether it was butted up against a Pagan society in another city, still maintained an amazing uniqueness, and no matter how much interrelation and intercourse economically and culturally and all it happened to have with Pagans, it seemed never to be tainted by Paganism. There was just such a unique identity and this was particularly around the time of Christ and the time of the New Testament.

You couldn’t even enter a Jewish town or enter a Jewish village without feeling like you had almost stepped into another world. You get that feeling today when you go to Jerusalem, not so much when you see the hustle and bustle of a modern city, but when you happen to be isolated with a group, say, of Orthodox Jews who are doing what only Orthodox Jews do, you feel that somehow something’s wrong. You’re out of whack or they’re out of whack with the world.

Interestingly enough, even among modern observant Jews, the sense of distinctiveness between the Jewish community and the surrounding peoples is considered not only normal but necessary in order to fulfill the requirements of God for the Jewish people.

MacArthur distinguishes Christianity and Judaism in a number of ways during his sermon, but I found this paragraph rather telling.

I think that, for most of us, we tend to look at religion in this frame. But Judaism was not such an isolated creed of theology. You see, it was a whole way of life. It pervaded every single human relationship. It pervaded every single attitude toward eating and drinking and clothing and all kinds of things in terms of economy, not just a set of observances, not just a creed, but a way of life and you could never just suck Jewish theology out and remove Judaism. No, because Judaism was a way of life.

Although, at least in theory, being a Christian should also be a way of life, in fact, MacArthur seems to say that Judaism is more of a way of life than Christianity. He says this is why the Jewish people had so difficult a time in giving up Judaism, because it completely defined every aspect of Jewish living. Really, MacArthur. You say all that and you still don’t see a problem with requiring that Jewish people surrender everything that defines them, makes them unique, and enables them to continue forward through history without being destroyed on the altar of assimilation?

To his credit, MacArthur does say that there was faith, grace, and salvation in the Old Testament, but he blows past that part very quickly and “starts in” on the Rabbis.

…throughout the history of Israel, there have always been rabbis, which means teacher or master. And all of these rabbis were teaching and interpreting and adding to Scripture. And, of course, the esteem of a rabbi was so great that what the rabbi said was often written down. And all of these things were gathered and gathered and accumulated until today, you have this monstrous set of volumes known as the Talmud. And the Talmud is all of these rabbinical statements added onto the Biblical, and you will find that if you visit any rabbi who was at all involved in what he ought to be involved in as a rabbi, you would find that he has not only prescribed his life around the Old Testament, but perhaps even more so around the Talmud where he is following up all of the interpretations and suggestions of all the rabbis, some of which, most of which are unnecessary and unbiblical.

ancient_rabbisThis is MacArthur’s conceptualization of Rabbinic Judaism, the body of religious and cultural Judaism that enabled the continuation of the Jewish people after the destruction of the Temple and after most of collective human Israel had been exiled from their Land. In the world according to MacArthur, the Rabbis were just a bunch of guys who added unnecessary stuff to the Bible.

He briefly makes some sort of commentary on the “Shimah.” I’ll take it for granted that whoever transcribed MacArthur’s sermon didn’t know the accepted English spelling of “Shema” and that MacArthur didn’t find it necessary to proofread the text. On the other hand, his sermons could have been transcribed years or decades after the fact.

But then there’s this story:

There was a rabbi by the name of Rabbi Jacanon Van Saccai (sic). It was written of him that he said this at his death. And it was interesting because he was called The Light of Israel. He lived at the time of the destruction of the temple. He was a very famous man, highly esteemed. And he was the president of the San Hedron (sic) or the ruling body of Israel. So he was not a small-time rabbi, but a very important man. On his deathbed, he began to weep just bitterly and profusely, and some of his students who had studied under him and sat at his feet couldn’t believe this.

Just to clarify, MacArthur is referring to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai who I’ll discuss a bit later, and the “San Hedron” is the Sanhedrin, which is not a ruling body but the highest religious court assembly in ancient Israel.

And they asked him how such a man who had lived as he could have such fear of death, and this was his reply and I quote, “If I were now to be brought before an Earthly kind who lives today and dies tomorrow, whose wrath and whose bonds are not everlasting and whose sentence of death even is not that to everlasting death, who can be assuaged by arguments or perhaps bought off by money, I should still tremble and weep. How much more reason have I for it when about to be led before the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed by (sic) He who liveth and abideth forever, whose chains are chains forevermore, whose sentence of death kills forever, whom I cannot assuage with words nor bride (sic) with money and not only so, but there are before me two ways: one’s a paradise and the other one to hell. And I know not which of the two ways I shall have to go. How then shall I not shed tears?” End quote. The man believed that there was only one (way) to enter into heaven and that was to keep the law and he knew in his conscious (conscience?) that he hadn’t done it, and he had a fear of spending forever in hell. You see, he had no concept of faith, no concept of grace. He was in a system that bound him and if he didn’t do what the system wanted him to do, he believed he’d go to hell forever.

This is a fairly well-known story, but my memory of it didn’t match MacArthur’s description which seems to contain blatant assumptions about why the revered sage was so fearful. I did a bit of research and found more about the rather tragic deathbed scene as recorded by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld at Torah.org

In spite of it all, R. Yochanan was plagued with doubts for the rest of his life. The Talmud records that on his deathbed, he tearfully told his students that he has two paths before him — to Heaven and to Hell — and he was literally unsure along which one he would be led (Brachos 28b). He took it upon himself to change the course of Jewish history, and to his dying moments was never truly sure he had chosen right. (I heard this explanation of the Talmud from R. Berel Wein.)

jewish-traditionBut according to Rabbi Rosenfeld, R. Yochanan was not terrified of “going to Hell” because he relied on an unreliable Torah and lacked the grace of Jesus Christ, he was deeply troubled that he had not made the correct decision in preserving the Jewish people and the Torah.

According to the Talmud (Gittin 56), when the Romans had surrounded Jerusalem in the final siege that heralded the destruction of the Temple, many Jewish people wanted to fight and die rather than give in to the Romans, but R. Yochanan was concerned that this would only result in total extermination of the Jews and elimination of the Torah from all the earth.

As the story goes, R. Yochanan had himself smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin and eventually made an arrangement with the Roman general Vespasian to establish a center of learning in Yavneh, along with its sages, so that the study and observance of Torah could continue.

This agreement wasn’t incredibly popular with a lot of Jewish people as you might imagine, and even to the end of his days, R. Yochanan was tortured with whether or not he made the right decision to hand Jerusalem and the Temple over to the enemy, even to preserve Jewish lives and ensure the continuation of Torah study.

Sorry to occupy so much space on what seems to be a minor portion of MacArthur’s sermon, but I felt it necessary to set the record straight and present the Jewish point of view (to the best of my ability) on the life and death of Yochanan ben Zakkai.

MacArthur tends to play fast and loose with Jewish history, Jewish concepts, and Jewish people (see his comments on “sloppy” below), and since he’s made the decision to eliminate Judaism at Acts 2 and to declare that it was going through a slow and agonizing death, I have some concerns that MacArthur, for all of his apparent education, may not truly understand some of the things and people he’s talking about.

Now that we have MacArthur’s opinion on R. Yochanan, this is how he sees the apostle Paul:

Well, now watch. Into this system comes a man by the name of Paul and he’s running around say(ing), “Grace. Grace. Forget all the laws.” And the Jews are having culture shock. There’s no way they can handle that. That’s why when he went into the synagogue the reaction was so violent. See?

Never mind a more scholarly approach that does not present Paul as rather gleefully “Law-free,” such as what I’ve been studying in the Mark Nanos books The Mystery of Romans and The Irony of Galatians. According to MacArthur, Paul just made Judaism go away and proceeded to enter the various synagogues in the diaspora claiming, “Grace. Grace. Forget all the laws.” This isn’t a description of a real to life, complicated, intelligent human being with a very difficult task as the Jewish emissary of Messiah to the Gentiles. MacArthur seems to be describing Paul as a cartoon. Who’s adding to scripture now?

And what about Peter and Acts 10?

“And which were all matter of four-footed beasts of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things,” that’s snakes and reptiles and birds, fowls of the air. “And there came a voice to him, ‘Rise, Peter. Kill and eat.'” Now, that sounds like a simple thing. He sees in his vision all these animals and the voice says, “Go ahead, Peter, just kill them all and eat.”

Now what’s he saying? Well, in effect, he’s saying there’s no distinction because in the Old Testament there were certain things a Jew couldn’t eat, right? And Peter had lived all his life that way. And now in the New Covenant, Jew and Gentile were going to be one in the church, and God didn’t want any difference anymore. There is no difference.

You think Peter could’ve gone, “Oh, fine Lord. Sure. Just pass the plate. I’ll eat whatever’s there.” No. Couldn’t handle it.

Verse 14. “And Peter said, ‘Not so Lord.'” Peter actually said, “No, Lord.” That’s pretty flagrant disobedience. This can’t be. Are you kidding me? “For I’ve never eaten anything that is common or unclean in my life, I’ve never done that. Salvation or no salvation, I can’t handle it.” See.

jewish-t-shirtMaybe what’s rubbing me the wrong way is MacArthur’s casual and even disrespectful manner in talking about Yochanan ben Zakkai, Paul, and Peter. He seems to be making fun of them because they couldn’t “let go” of this “Jewish stuff.” Maybe it’s because my wife and kids are Jewish. I just get the feeling MacArthur wants to laugh at them or to discount them. I hope I’m not being too personal in my review.

It also seems like MacArthur is reading a lot into the text (adding to scripture?), as if God really expected Peter to start shoveling a sheet load of “trief” down without so much as a by your leave. In fact, the vision of Peter in Acts 10 had nothing to do with unclean food:

And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. (emph. mine)

Acts 10:28

There’s also a difference between unkosher animals and unclean foods, but for the sake of time, I’ll refer you to the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) television episode All Foods Clean or my review of the program for the details.

Of the lives of the apostles, MacArthur said:

Now, we want to live by biblical doctrine, but I’m not interested in going back there. I’m not interested in having trouble over what I eat like Peter did. I’m not interested in going over to the temple in Jerusalem and making vows like Paul did and having to take a Nazarite vow and cut all my hair and haul my hair half way across the world so I can burn it properly in Jerusalem. I’m not interested in all the trappings of Judaism.

I suppose I don’t blame him for saying that since he believes Judaism was horribly burdensome and became extinct after Acts 2, but he really shouldn’t worry since, not being Jewish, he wouldn’t have been required to observe Torah in the manner of believing (or unbelieving) Jews (see the Acts 15 legal decision). Besides, a Nazarite vow was totally voluntary and most Jews likely never took that particular vow.

But what does any of this have to do with Acts 18:24-28? Not much. Apparently it takes MacArthur quite a while to set the stage for what he’s actually going to talk about.

And you see, here’s Paul. You say, “He’s a Christian. What’s he doing?” Sure, he’s a Christian, but as a Christian, he’s also a Jew. He’s been a Christian a little while. He’s been a Jew all his life. And he’s saying to himself, “I’m grateful to God for what He did, and the way that I know best how to show Him how grateful I am is to do what all good Jews do.” And the high point of their thanks is to take a Nazarite vow, and so he did what a Jew would do. Because that was his life, that was the way he thought.

This is part of what was taught during the sermon and at Sunday school last week at the church I attend. I didn’t go last week, but I did do the homework for class, which is based in part on MacArthur’s opinion of Paul and Nazarite vows. I didn’t find anything in Numbers 6 that mapped to why MacArthur believes one takes such a vow out of gratitude for what God has done. My understanding is that one took a Nazarite vow in order to temporarily experience a heightened state of ritual purity.

Now a Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John; and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wanted to go across to Achaia, the brethren encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him; and when he had arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.

Acts 18:24-28 (NASB)

I didn’t really think much about all this. It made sense in those days that because information traveled rather slowly throughout the then-civilized world, different bodies of believers might have inconsistent knowledge of the teachings of the Master and the experience of disciples in other places.

But MacArthur interprets this portion of scripture in a unique way:

Now, Apollos is a Jew and he is from the city of Alexandria.

He was a powerful man in terms of teaching. And let me just say at this point that his power at this point was the natural. He was not a Christian at this point, so consequently, did not have the indwelling Holy Spirit.

I believe that Apollos was not a Christian but that he was a student of John the Baptist.

Now, see, here is a man who accepted all the way of the Lord in the Old Testament, accepted the ministry of John the Baptist, saw that John pointed to Jesus and said, Behold the lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world,” and he believed that Jesus was the Messiah. You say then, “Why wasn’t he a Christian?” Because he didn’t know what happened in the death, resurrection and Pentecost that followed the life of Jesus. He was pre-cross.

On the wrong side of the cross? Oh gee. Is that concept even in scripture as applied to the apostolic age? And Apollos didn’t have the Spirit?  What about verse 25 where it says, “and being fervent in spirit?” In reading MacArthur’s sermons, I get the impression the man is always shooting from the hip. Anyway…

No, he wasn’t a Christian. But technically, neither were any of the apostles, including Paul, or any of the Jewish (and arguably Gentile) disciples. You can’t anachronistically force the concept of Christianity as we understand it today back into the apostolic era. Apollos was a Jew and he practiced Judaism as a disciple of Moshiach (Messiah).

And just to wrap things up:

Now, there’s another angle in this word. It’s used one other time in Ephesians 5:15, which would be helpful. Paul says “See that you walk acrabos, with exactness.” The Christian should live his life with the same kind of preciseness that we interpret the Scripture, with the same kind of preciseness that God wrote it. God didn’t give us a sloppy revelation, did he? And God doesn’t want us to slop up his revelation and God doesn’t want us to slop up our lives either. Same word in all three areas.

Well, there you meet two in transition, Paul and Apollos. And how exciting it is to see what God is doing in their lives and how grateful we are that the Spirit of God brought about the transition that they might have influence on us.

MacArthur in churchSee what I mean about “sloppy?”

What really scares me is the thought that, back in January 1974 (and no doubt today), the people listening to MacArthur’s sermon probably lapped it up. How many of them would have decided to look up his references and examine his sources, especially about Jewish Biblical and Rabbinic history? After all, the entire thrust of this sermon series is to declare the elimination of Judaism in any form in the pages of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. But I don’t find MacArthur’s presentation on Judaism to be either serious or accurate.

It’s like he’s saying, “Gee, look how dumb these Jews were. They had Jesus and grace and still couldn’t give up that nasty, ol’ law. Thank the Lord we’re nothing like them. I’m so glad God doesn’t care about what food I eat or what day of the week I worship, or any of that terrible stuff.”

OK, I made that last bit up, but it certainly seems to fit the tone of what MacArthur was preaching.

I can’t do this. I can’t think like he does. I can’t believe like he does. How am I supposed to participate in the rebuilding of the Tent of David in the Christian church when men like MacArthur and sermons such as this one are expending no small effort in cheerfully burning that tent down to the ground?

See Part 3 of my review on this series to see how it turns out.