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Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: Melchizedek

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham as he was returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, to whom also Abraham apportioned a tenth part of all the spoils, was first of all, by the translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then also king of Salem, which is king of peace. Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, he remains a priest perpetually.

Now observe how great this man was to whom Abraham, the patriarch, gave a tenth of the choicest spoils. And those indeed of the sons of Levi who receive the priest’s office have commandment in the Law to collect a tenth from the people, that is, from their brethren, although these are descended from Abraham. But the one whose genealogy is not traced from them collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed the one who had the promises. But without any dispute the lesser is blessed by the greater. In this case mortal men receive tithes, but in that case one receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives on. And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him.

Now if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law), what further need was there for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be designated according to the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also. For the one concerning whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no one has officiated at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests. And this is clearer still, if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become such not on the basis of a law of physical requirement, but according to the power of an indestructible life. For it is attested of Him,

“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek.”

Hebrews 7:1-17 (NASB)

The story of Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek and Hebrews 7:1-17. Was Melchizedek actually a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ in the Old Testament? Who is the mysterious priest and what is his relationship to Yeshua?

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Twenty-seven: Melchizedek
Originally presented on October 12, 2013
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

We finally exit the elementary principles of the faith and get back into that “meat” the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews was talking about. That meat starts with Melchizedek.

Lancaster started out by quoting from Lech Lecha:

When he returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the kings with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the Valley of the King. And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him, saying,

“Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your foes into your hand.”

And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything.

Genesis 14:17-20 (JPS Tanakh)

So who was Melchizedek? He’s the King of Righteousness. The King of a place called Salem, which is an ancient name for Jerusalem. He’s also called a King of Peace. Sound familiar?

melchizedekLancaster says (and I’ve heard this before as well) that many people believe that Melchizedek is a “pre-incarnate Jesus”. In other words, Jesus showed up in disguise in the Old Testament to honor Abraham. I’ve always had trouble with this interpretation, as it cheapens the incarnation of Jesus being born of woman (much later in history) by having him just appear and disappear in this sequence of events. Fortunately, Lancaster also has a problem with this. But then what is Melchizedek’s relationship to Jesus?

Here’s one connection (sort of). Lancaster says that Melchizedek shows up bringing bread and wine to give Abraham a banquet foreshadowing the banquet of Abraham in Messianic Days. What banquet you ask?

I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…

Matthew 8:11 (NASB)

Oh. That banquet.

So Jesus is supposed to give Abraham a banquet in the Messianic Kingdom? Seems kind of reversed. You’d think Abraham would hold a banquet in honor of King Messiah. On the other hand Abraham did give Melchizedek a tenth of everything after receiving a blessing, but we’ll get back to that.

Lancaster did bring up the midrash in Judaism that suggests Melchizedek was actually Shem, the son of Noah. While this works in terms of the chronology of events, it can’t be true because the writer of Hebrews says that Melchizedek is without genealogy or ancestry, which Shem definitely had.

Lancaster, dispelling the midrash in this case, then quotes the following:

This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

Hebrews 6:19-20 (NASB)

We know about the order of the priesthood of Melchizedek from this:

The Lord says to my Lord:
“Sit at My right hand
Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.”
The Lord will stretch forth Your strong scepter from Zion, saying,

“Rule in the midst of Your enemies.”
Your people will volunteer freely in the day of Your power;
In holy array, from the womb of the dawn,
Your youth are to You as the dew.
The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind,
“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek.”

Psalm 110:1-4 (NASB)

All this seems to indicate that the Priest/King Melchizedek had established a priestly order. What do you have to do to join this order?

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham as he was returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, to whom also Abraham apportioned a tenth part of all the spoils, was first of all, by the translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then also king of Salem, which is king of peace. Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, he remains a priest perpetually.

Hebrews 7:1-3 (NASB)

the letterLancaster admits that on the surface, this sounds a great deal like Melchizedek could be Jesus. On the other hand, saying he was without father and mother just means that the Torah doesn’t mention them, not that they didn’t exist. Also, it says Melchizedek had no genealogy, but Jesus has a very specific genealogy. He has to in order to qualify as the Messiah King.

Lancaster directs us back to his understanding of why this letter was first authored. The Greek-speaking, Jesus-believing Jews in Jerusalem were going through a crisis of faith. They had been persecuted by the Sadducees who were in control of the Temple. They had been cut off from the Temple, from the sacrifices, and from the (Aaronic) priesthood. And as Lancaster said in past sermons, no one approaches Hashem without a priest.

But the Hebrews writer is saying that they did have a priest, just one of a different order than that of the Aaronic priesthood. But how could that be?

You shall gird them with sashes, Aaron and his sons, and bind caps on them, and they shall have the priesthood by a perpetual statute.

Exodus 29:9 (NASB)

This is a fancy way of saying that the priesthood descending from Aaron was established forever. It was never-ending. It could not be ended or replaced.

So how could Messiah, of the tribe of Judah and the house of David be a priest?

Because he belonged to a different order of priests. The order of Melchizedek. But is there such an order or was the writer of Hebrews speaking metaphorically?

I asked before, what would you have to do if there were such a priestly order and you wanted to join it? According to Psalm 110:4, you had to be immortal because it says, “a priest forever.” As far as we can tell, Melchizedek was not immortal, even though the Bible never records his death (or birth for that matter).

If Melchizedek was a literal King/Priest of the city of Salem, which at that time a Jesubite city ruled by a Canaanite King, then this couldn’t have been a role that Jesus just “popped in” for and then popped back out again up into Heaven after a brief chat and a nosh with Abraham. He would have had to rule over Salem on a day-to-day basis, being the head of a very real government in a very real city with very real human citizens.

Doesn’t seem likely that this is Jesus.

We do know something about Melchizedek as a priest, though. He blessed Abraham and Abraham paid Melchizedek.

But without any dispute the lesser is blessed by the greater. In this case mortal men receive tithes, but in that case one receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives on. And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him.

Hebrews 7:7-10 (NASB)

AbrahamIn almost any context, Abraham, having received the promises from God, was the biggest wheel at the table, so to speak. No one was of a higher authority than Abraham relative to the purposes of God. If anything, Abraham should have blessed Melchizedek, since only the greater blesses the lesser, just like fathers bless their children. That Melchizedek, the Priest of the Most High God, blessed Abraham, then he was superior to Abraham. Also, Melchizedek should have given a “tithe” to Abraham if Abraham were truly in the catbird seat.

If, as the above-quoted verses from Hebrews 7 attest, Aaron and his descendants were “still in the loins of” Abraham, it would be as if, in blessing Abraham, Melchizedek were blessing Aaron and his sons, thus establishing that Melchizedek and his priestly order was superior to Aaron and the Levitical priestly order. This is also why Melchizedek would receive a tithe instead of paying one.

Now if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law), what further need was there for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be designated according to the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also.

Hebrews 7:11-12 (NASB)

This makes it seem as if the Melchizedekian order replaces the Aaronic order of priests, and thus Jesus replaces the Levitical priesthood, the Temple, the sacrifices, and the Torah.

Lancaster says he’ll address all that in a subsequent sermon, but in short, Jesus being in the order of the priesthood of Melchizedek doesn’t replace Aaron’s priesthood (and the sacrifices, the Temple, and the Torah), but he represents a different order that exists in a different venue, the Heavenly Temple Court, while the Aaronic priesthood has authority over the earthly Temple and sacrifices.

As I’ve already mentioned, verse 14 addresses the differences between the ancestry of Melchizedek (whose ancestors are not mentioned) and Jesus (who had a very specific ancestry).

And this is clearer still, if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become such not on the basis of a law of physical requirement, but according to the power of an indestructible life. For it is attested of Him,

“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek.”

Hebrews 7:15-17 (NASB)

Notice this says someone “in the likeness of Melchizedek” and not Melchizedek himself. Also, this order of the priesthood of Melchizedek is not established through a “physical requirement,” that is, who you are descended from, but rather, “according to the power of an indestructible life.” By being the “first fruits of the dead,” (1 Corinthians 15:20), Jesus was the first to have the power of an indestructible life, thus only he was and is qualified to enter into the priestly order of Melchizedek. It comes down to the writer of Hebrews saying that Jesus can be a Priest of a different order than the Aaronic priesthood because Melchizedek had previously been accepted as a Priest of Hashem and was not a descendant of Aaron.

All this I more or less knew, though Lancaster nicely filled in some of my information gaps…

…but…

What Did I Learn?

Take silver and gold, make an ornate crown and set it on the head of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Then say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Behold, a man whose name is Branch, for He will branch out from where He is; and He will build the temple of the Lord. Yes, it is He who will build the temple of the Lord, and He who will bear the honor and sit and rule on His throne. Thus, He will be a priest on His throne, and the counsel of peace will be between the two offices.”’ (emph. mine)

Zechariah 6:11-13 (NASB)

Compare this to the following:

“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch;
And He will reign as king and act wisely
And do justice and righteousness in the land. (emph. mine)

Jeremiah 23:5 (NASB)

LevitesBoth of these are Messianic prophesies. The passage from Zechariah describes the Israelites returning to their Land after the Babylonian exile. The Temple was in ruins. Prophesy said the Messiah should have arrived at that point, rebuilt the Temple and restored Israel. Where was he?

According to Lancaster, Zechariah’s answer was to prophesy that a (righteous) Branch would come to rebuild the Temple. Then the prophet commanded that a crown be made and placed on the head of Joshua the High Priest, and that he would represent the Branch who would one day come to rebuild the Temple and to sit on the King’s Throne, and that the Branch would also be a Priest, and that he would bring peace between the office of the priesthood and the office of the King.

The kicker is that the High Priest’s name is “Joshua”, which is “Yehoshua” in Hebrew (transliterated), but the Jews coming out of Babylon were speaking Aramaic, not Hebrew. They would have pronounced his name “Yeshua,” which we translate into English as “Jesus.”

The writer of the Book of Hebrews is trying to encourage his readers by saying they really do have a High Priest, one who is in Heaven, even though they are cut off from the earthly High Priest. Based on the precedents set in Psalm 110 and Genesis 14, that High Priest is King Messiah, who like Melchizedek, is both a King and a Priest, which was also prophesied by Zechariah.

This was good news for the Jesus-believing Jews reading this letter, but it’s also good news for us. Even though Kohens are identifiable today, there is no Temple in which they can offer sacrifices. Yet no man comes to God without a priest. But we, like the readers of the Hebrews letter, do have a High Priest, one who brings us near to God. we have Yeshua, we have Jesus, who is both King and Priest in the order of Melchizedek.

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Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: The Partisans

The kingdom of heaven prior to the final redemption can be likened to a partisan movement, such as Robin Hood and his men or the European freedom fighters that fought in Nazi occupied territory. The Partisans is a teaching on Hebrews 2 in light of Psalm 8 and the parable of Luke 19:12ff concerning all things in subjection to the Son and the revelation of the kingdom.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Eight: The Partisans
Originally presented on February 16, 2013
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

Lancaster’s sermons on Hebrews are always fascinating, but I really think he outdid himself with this one.

His goal for this sermon was to make it all the way through Hebrews 2. Last week we saw how Messiah is higher than the angels, and this week we explore, among other things, how Jesus had to be temporarily made a little lower than the angels, just as the rest of humanity is, in order to be elevated so that all things are put under his feet.

Lancaster cites this chapter as well as portions of 1 Corinthians 15 as something of a midrash on Psalm 8 and 110. In fact, Psalm 8 (I provided the link for your convenience) is a very significant quote used by the writer of Hebrews here:

For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying,

“What is man, that You remember him?
Or the son of man, that You are concerned about him?
“You have made him for a little while lower than the angels;
You have crowned him with glory and honor,
And have appointed him over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things in subjection under his feet.”

For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.

Hebrews 2:5-8 (NASB)

Along with Psalm 110, we see that literally everything has been placed under King Messiah’s control and authority, everything in Heaven, on Earth, and in the age to come. There are no exceptions and further, that Messiah’s Kingship and authority are not to be realized in the future, but they exist in the present (at the time of the writing of Hebrews), that is, right now.

OK. That’s incredibly cool. Jesus is King. I hear that a lot in hymns at church. Problem is, as I look around, I don’t see a world ruled by the Messiah King. I don’t see all of Israel’s enemies defeated, all the Jewish people returned to their Land, a world-wide reign of total peace, a Temple of God in Jerusalem, the Spirit of God poured out on all flesh, or any of the other things the Prophets of old said would accompany the Kingship of Messiah.

So how can everything already be under Messiah’s authority if the Earth is still such an awful mess?

Parable time:

While they were listening to these things, Jesus went on to tell a parable, because He was near Jerusalem, and they supposed that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately. So He said, “A nobleman went to a distant country to receive a kingdom for himself, and then return. And he called ten of his slaves, and gave them ten minas and said to them, ‘Do business with this until I come back.’ But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ When he returned, after receiving the kingdom…

…But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence.”

Luke 19:11-15, 27 (NASB)

You’ll probably want to read all of Luke 19:11-27 to get the full parable, but for the sake of the length of this missive, I quoted only the most relevant portions.

Jesus is speaking a parable about Herod, who escaped ancient Israel after being on the wrong end of a dispute, and ran off to Rome, and then due to circumstances you can learn in Lancaster’s sermon, was made King of Israel. Now he was King and given all authority as such while in Rome, but the people in Israel had no idea and they believed they were subject to their current pretender King.

D. Thomas Lancaster
D. T. Lancaster

Of course, as Lancaster said, Rome would have sent a dispatch ahead of Herod’s return announcing his Kingship and authority, but there would certainly be people who would not want to accept him. If it wouldn’t be more or less suicidal, the rebels could have sent a dispatch back saying, we don’t want to accept him as King. But the parable says that’s what happened.

Now Lancaster says we can apply this parable to Jesus as well. When he ascended, he sat at the right hand of the Father and at that point in time, everything was placed under his authority as King. But, he was (and is) still in a far away place, but he’s returning. It is also true that a “dispatch” has been sent to his Kingdom, that is, the world, saying that Jesus has been made King and that he already has authority, but people have responded that they want the current King and do not want the King who is currently far away and who will return only later (or as many atheists say, a King who does not exist at all).

The population under a not present Herod was divided into those who were loyal to the current King and those who were loyalist to the King who would return.

We are like that, too. Plenty of people, probably most people worldwide, are loyal to the current King of our world, but we who are believers are loyalists to the one we know is truly King and who will one day return.

Lancaster used the metaphor of Robin Hood and his Merry Men who were the Partisans or members of the Resistance movement of their day, working against the current King John but remaining loyal to the true King Richard, who one day would return. Only when King Richard returned would Robin and the loyalists be rewarded. Until that time, they were in constant danger.

And so it is with us. Actually, I was thinking of the Resistance movement in Nazi occupied France during World War 2 who were always in hiding, covertly committing acts of sabotage, struggling to make the way for the Allied invasion, and remaining loyal to the true authority over France. They were physically in a Nazi occupied land, living among them, eating, doing business, interacting with the occupiers, but they did not collaborate and were not of the subjects of the false “King”.

And so it is with us. Lancaster made great points about being slaves to the material world if you are a slave to the current King . But servants of the true King are free of the traps of the material world and fear of death in our loyalty to the King who has authority over Heaven, Earth, and the Messianic Age. Yet the Messianic Age is only a doorway to the furthest extent of Messiah’s Kingdom, the life in the world to come…eternity.

Being a “resistance fighter” is what it is to be a believer. We are loyalists to the coming King. We oppose the current King, who is the master of death, HaSatan, the adversary, “the devil.”

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.

Hebrews 2:14-15 (NASB)

deathSome midrashim equate HaSatan with the angel of death and others do not, but according to Lancaster, the writer of Hebrews spoke of the two as the same. If you thought this world was it and there was nothing else, then death is death and when you die, that’s it. Your reward is confined to this world so you might as well “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we all die.” Of course, that doesn’t mean all atheists are totally materialistic or can’t lead moral lives, but they are subjects only of the present world, so this is all they’ve got.

If we aren’t subjects of the King of this world but of the true King who has authority over everything, not just the Earth, and who is promised to return to deliver a Kingdom that is much finer and more just, a Kingdom of absolute peace and knowledge of God, then we don’t have to be afraid of or limited by the threat of death. We don’t accept death. Death is the enemy. Death can be personified. We oppose death.

Lancaster covered the Biblical rationale for why Jesus was made King and exalted over all, and it’s not just because he’s the Son of God and the Divine Logos. Believe it or not, he actually had to do something and he had a choice about whether or not to do it…that is he had to die. You can listen to the recording to get all the details and I highly recommend that you do, for it shows that in his victory over death, by dying for us all, we, as believers, also conquered and more, we became brothers (I’ll say more on that in a moment).

So the two interrelated themes of most of Hebrews 2 as Lancaster sees them, are that we, as believers, are loyalists to the coming true King and not the current pretender on the Throne, and that the defeat of death by Messiah not only was a choice on his part, but granted those of us who are his subjects eternal life. It was that conquest by Messiah that merited him a name above all names and his being granted authority over all things in existence right now, even though we can’t currently see his full control in our present world.

Lancaster delivered a fabulous interpretation of both themes and I strongly recommend that you listen to this sermon to get the full details.

What Did I Learn?

Although Christianity applies everything written in the New Testament as automatically applying to the Church, that is the body of Gentile believers that includes those Jewish people who have converted and assimilated into Gentile Christianity, Lancaster reminds us that the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews was Jewish and he was writing to an entirely Jewish audience.

Men's and women's section at Kotel (Wailing Wall) on Tisha B'Av- mechitza When the writer of Hebrews says Messiah refers to his followers as “brothers” (verse 12) and “children” (verse 13), he was talking about Israel, the Jewish people. There’s no direct connection that says he was applying those words to Gentile believers as well. Lancaster believes this ultimately includes all non-Jewish disciples of the Master as “brothers,” but I don’t think it’s that simple.

John 20:17 is one of the verses that shows Jesus referring to the disciples as “brothers” after his resurrection, so there was something in his death and resurrection that changed his relationship to the Jewish people, something the Jewish believers received as a result of Messiah’s trial in dying. However, Jesus and the writer of Hebrews are talking to Jewish people.

I’ve been having a conversation with a Jewish believer in the discussion thread on another of my blog posts about the role and relationship between believing Jews and Gentiles in the Messianic Jewish synagogue context. He believes in distinctiveness in identity, but that Gentiles should have equal access to resources and honors (aliyot, for instance) in the Messianic Jewish community. Others have commented that even if Jews and Gentiles should attend the same Messianic group, it would be justifiable for a separation (something like how men and women are separated in Orthodox synagogues, mirroring the court of the women in Herod’s temple) between Jews and Gentiles to exist.

My view is that Messianic Judaism, like the present and coming Kingdom of God, is a process, not a point event. There is going to be variability between different congregations based on tradition and history, at least until the coming of Messiah, just like there will be a slow revelation of evidence of Messiah’s Kingship, starting in the Gospels and ultimately culminating only with the King’s return.

Some months ago, I read Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, which I thoroughly enjoyed. At the point when Pi (you’ll have to have read the novel or have seen the film to understand what I’m about to say) realizes he’s sharing a small lifeboat with an adult Bengal Tiger, he realizes how unsafe this is (a huge understatement) and rapidly forms a small, makeshift raft, tying it to the lifeboat, and then launching it behind the larger vessel. This becomes his haven from the Tiger until he eventually learns how to “convince” the Tiger they can co-exist on the lifeboat.

I sometimes see that as the current relationship between Jews and Gentiles within the very specific context of Messianic Judaism. We are struggling with many things as “resistance fighters” in an unholy Kingdom and one of our struggles is how the different populations in the body of Messiah are supposed to interact, especially with the centuries long history of enmity between Jews and Christians. One way is to expect one population to assimilate into the other.

Historically, Gentile Christianity has demanded Jews to assimilate into them as a consequence of worship of the Jewish Messiah. In much more recent times, certain groups organized under “Hebrew Roots” have expected Gentiles to “assimilate” into a quasi-Jewish religious and cultural body (with varying degrees of “Jewishness”) becoming a single identity.

Other more Jewish aspects of Messianic Judaism, in partial reparation for past injuries, require a wholly Jewish environment in which to live and be Messianic Jews. Gentiles are welcome, but with the understanding that they are entering a Jewish environment as Gentiles. No compromises, no assimilation.

Pi on the raft and the Tiger in the lifeboat…for now.

Life of PiThe writer of Hebrews didn’t account for the presence of Gentiles at all in his sermon and we should do the same. But while this sermon clarifies a good many things for us, well “me” anyway, it doesn’t paint a portrait of Jewish/Gentile relationships in Messiah. Israel is Messiah’s brother, and the Jewish people are his children. It is only faith that allows me to take some small comfort that as a Gentile disciple and subject of the Messiah King, for he has dominion over everything including all the Gentile nations, that I may be called a “brother” and “child” too, though not in the same way as Israel, for Messiah is Israel’s first-born from the dead.

Not quite as dramatic or heroic as being a partisan, a resistance fighter, or one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, but I’ll accept whatever seat at the table I’m offered. As Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) said in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), “At my age, I’m prepared to take a few things on faith.”

The Messianic Kingdom is not a Democracy

snow-in-jerusalem-bookFor centuries, Jerusalem has been a holy place for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It has been referred to as both the Center of the Universe and the Eternal City. Jerusalem has also been called the City of Peace despite the fact that it has often been the object of bloody battles over religion and territory.

Today, Jerusalem is a city within a city. Surrounded by Arab East Jerusalem and Jewish West Jerusalem is the ancient Old City, an area of some 220 acres. The Old City is encircled by walls built in the sixteenth century by the Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent. Visitors may enter the Old City through one of seven large gates.

Inside, the Old City is divided physically and culturally into four sections: the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim (Arab) Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, and the Christian Quarter. These divisions are not totally segregated, however, and include some overlap of cultures. Nevertheless, Jewish and Arab children go to separate schools…

-Deborah da Costa
from the Author’s Note of her book
Snow in Jerusalem

In her affecting but message-driven debut children’s book, da Costa relays the story of two boys who live in Jerusalem’s Old City Avi in the Jewish Quarter and Hamudi in the Muslim Quarter. A fluffy white cat wanders between the homes of the two boys, relishing the scraps each feeds her. Then weeks pass without any sign of the cat, alarming each boy. Looking skinny and dirty, the cat at last visits Avi, who then follows her to Hamudi’s neighborhood, where the youngsters begin to argue, each claiming the cat is his. As a rare snowfall begins, the boys stop bickering and, fearing that the beloved animal will freeze, follow her through Jerusalem to a dark alley where they discover four kittens in a box. As the mother purrs loudly and rubs against the boys, they conclude, “She does not want us to fight…. She wants peace.”

-from the Publisher’s Weekly review of the same book
found at Amazon.com

Tales of the Messianic Era series

My wife checked this book out of our local library (along with a dozen other children’s books) for our four-and-a-half year old grandson, Landon. I took last Friday off of work and spent the day with the little guy. After arts and crafts at the library, lunch of (homemade) macaroni and cheese, two or three episodes of Jonny Quest (1964), Legos and other toys, we got down to the business of reading. Da Costa’s “Snow in Jerusalem” was one of the books he wanted me to read to him while he was enjoying a mid-afternoon snack.

I enjoyed reading the book and especially the feeling of actually walking the streets of the Old City between the Jewish and Arab quarters, but reading the Author’s Note at the very end stopped me cold. I realized that this was a book promoting peace, not just between the characters Avi and Hamudi in the book, but between peoples and cultures. That’s not a bad thing certainly, but there was a further undercurrent suggesting a perpetual sharing of all of Israel, sub-divided between Jewish Israel and Arab Palestine.

That’s a popular solution for the conflict between these two people groups, especially among political and social liberals, but it flies in the face of the Bible and I believe is an affront to God. To be clear, I don’t think peace between all the different people of the world is the affront, but I do believe carving up Israel into different chunks for different people like separating the white and dark meat of a turkey on Thanksgiving is.

The word which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

Now it will come about that
In the last days
The mountain of the house of the Lord
Will be established as the chief of the mountains,
And will be raised above the hills;
And all the nations will stream to it.
And many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
That He may teach us concerning His ways
And that we may walk in His paths.”
For the law will go forth from Zion
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
And He will judge between the nations,
And will render decisions for many peoples;
And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they learn war.

Come, house of Jacob, and let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Isaiah 2:1-5 (NASB)

gateway_jerusalemIn reviewing various scriptures in the Tanakh (Old Testament) about the Messianic Era and the future King of Israel, I don’t see any references to taking the Land of Promise, which God gave to Abraham, and to Isaac, and to Jacob, and all of the physical descendants of that specific line (and notice Ishmael is not included, nor any of Abraham’s other sons) and splitting it up into Jewish and non-Jewish portions. The only “splits” of the Land involved the different areas given to the twelve tribes of Israel.

Messiah will come to return all of the exiled Jewish people to their Land and to rebuild Jerusalem as the Jewish city.

The Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares,
“Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.”

Isaiah 56:8 (NASB)

I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’

Jeremiah 29:14 (NASB)

These are just a few of the examples in scripture declaring that Messiah will gather the exiles of Israel and restore them to their nation.

Peace is a wonderful thing. So is fairness, equity, sharing, friendship, and the like. But how we imagine these general concepts and their application in Messianic Days may not be how they will really play out. Remember, whether you are Jewish or Christian, the Messiah is King, not President or Prime Minister. A Kingdom is not the same as a Democracy. Citizens of a Kingdom ruled by a single Monarch do not get to vote on laws, rules, and ordinances. The King’s Word is Law.

We all assume that everyone will get what they want in the Messianic Kingdom. Perhaps that is true, but I suspect for some people it will not be so. What if you’re a Muslim and the Jewish Messiah comes to rule not only Israel (all of Israel) as a Jewish nation, but the entire planet? For that matter, what if you are a Christian and you suddenly realize just how Jewish your “Jesus” really is? What if the King establishes without any equivocation that the Jewish nation is the head of all the nations (rather than the United States of America), and that the Torah is the Law of the Land for Israel and incumbent upon all of the Jewish people? What if some portions of that Torah go forth from Zion, and apply to all the people of the nations who are called by His Name (Amos 9:11-12)?

Don’t we get a vote on this? Don’t we have a say? How could this possibly be fair? Where is God’s justice?

There will be nothing else but God’s justice on Earth during the Messianic Age. People will get what they need but not always what they want according to the will of God. We will have peace. Our swords will be beaten into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, but only after Messiah has led a vast army to defeat all of Israel’s enemies (including, most likely, the United States of America). God Himself will fight for Israel, crush her adversaries, and establish her security.

The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.

Zechariah 14:9 (NIV)

Are you getting the picture. The Lord will be one and His Name, One.

In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.

He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth.

Isaiah 11:10, 12 (NIV)

ffoz-tvNot only will Messiah gather the Jewish exiles and restore them to Israel, but he will act as a banner for the rest of us, drawing us to him.

But remember, we won’t get a vote. This is Law.

The only and last functioning Theocracy (nation directly ruled by God) on Earth was ancient Israel before the people demanded that Samuel anoint Saul as King.

In the Messianic Age, that Kingdom, that Theocracy will be restored. A Davidic King, the last Davidic King will ascend the Throne in Jerusalem again, David’s Throne, which God promised to David and to his descendants forever.

For the sons of Israel will remain for many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred pillar and without ephod or household idols. Afterward the sons of Israel will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king; and they will come trembling to the Lord and to His goodness in the last days.

Hosea 3:4-5 (NASB)

For many, many centuries, Israel has been without a King, but it will not always be so. The King is coming. He will return. He will restore his people, the Jewish people, and all of humanity will go up to Jerusalem, and every knee will bow, to the Ruler, the Prince, the King, Messiah, Son of David, the Righteous Branch.

With respects to Deborah da Costa, while there will be peace within Jerusalem and her walls will forever be secure, it will not be the sort of peace established by a Jewish boy and an Arab boy arguing over possession of a cat and her kittens. It will be a brutally fought and hard-won peace where real adversaries will spill gallons of blood and mountains of dead flesh will decay in the sun and be eaten by carrion birds.

Enemies will be defeated in a war lead by a King whose rule is absolute. Peace will come when all of those enemies are dead, and the survivors of the nations defeated by Israel’s armies and by God must come to Jerusalem once a year to honor the King on Sukkot.

Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths. And it will be that whichever of the families of the earth does not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, there will be no rain on them. If the family of Egypt does not go up or enter, then no rain will fall on them; it will be the plague with which the Lord smites the nations who do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Booths. This will be the punishment of Egypt, and the punishment of all the nations who do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Booths.

Zechariah 14:16-19 (NASB)

And then there will be peace.

Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken.

Micah 4:4 (NIV)

white-pigeon-kotelPeace comes when the Lord Almighty has spoken it, not when we have imagined some man-made utopia and think we can make it real just by publishing enough books, television shows, and movies based on that fantasy.

All that said, we can escape the fantasy and be part of building the way to Messianic peace now, at least a little of it. But we have to grasp onto the “fringes” of the garment of God, so to speak, humble ourselves, and speak the words of the coming Kingdom and the King who is to be. We can choose that path, or deny it and inherit a more terrible end.

“…and you will come up against My people Israel like a cloud to cover the land. It shall come about in the last days that I will bring you against My land, so that the nations may know Me when I am sanctified through you before their eyes, O Gog.”

Ezekiel 38:16 (NASB)

That choice is ours to make. The King has been patient with us, but his patience will end, and we had better be ready when it does. We are either soldiers in his army or on the side that will see defeat. We will see peace in the Kingdom or find the peace of the grave. The Holy One of Jacob neither slumbers or sleeps.

And he is the King. We must bow or be broken.

Jerusalem has been called the Center of the Universe and the Eternal City. But it is also known as the City of David. One day it will truly be the City of Peace.

Shoftim: The Messianic Prophet and King

king-priest-torahNOTE: I wrote this commentary a few days before my recent blog post, Can Jesus Inherit Lineage from his Adoptive Father Joseph?.

If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.” And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.

When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.

Deuteronomy 17:14-20 (JPS Tanakh)

Of course, this instruction was incumbant upon all of Israel’s Kings beginning with Saul, but we know that subsequently Saul was removed from the Throne by God and David set in his place. Further, we know that God made a covenant with David that a descendent of his would always sit upon the Throne of Israel (2 Samuel 7:11-17), and the ultimate Davidic King is Messiah (John 1:49).

But if Messiah is a legitimate King of Israel, he should be subject to what we see in this week’s Torah Portion Shoftim, as quoted above.

The parsha goes further: the king is commanded to write two copies of the Torah, to keep the Torah with him, and should read from it “all the days of his life.” Thus the king was to acquire and maintain fear of Heaven, and to observe the Torah and perform its Commandments. A Jewish king recognizes that in actuality, he is merely a servant of a Higher authority. The Torah commands that he do all this “so that his heart does not lift itself over his brothers.” The intent is the same: he remains one of the people, and he is responsible for them and their spiritual well-being. Unlike monarchies in other nations, the Jewish king must remain part of the people, and care for them.

-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Commentary on Shoftim
Torah.org

Perhaps Messiah was responding to this requirement when he said and did this:

So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

John 13:12-17 (NASB)

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:25-28 (NASB)

And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.

Matthew 27:50 (NASB)

We often think of Kings as rulers and especially in the case of David, as warriors, leading armies to defeat enemies, but what about the servant King who so identified with his subjects that he would give his life so they would live?

Although we don’t typically think of Moses as a King, we see that he possessed the same qualities:

Then Moses returned to the Lord, and said, “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. But now, if You will, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!”

Exodus 32:31-32 (NASB)

moshiach-ben-yosefWe don’t think of Jesus as becoming a King until he returns, but even as Yeshua ben Yosef, the suffering servant, he was everything we could ever hope from a King, especially in his humility and his willingness to give his life for those he loves.

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself; him you shall heed. This is just what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb, on the day of the Assembly, saying, “Let me not hear the voice of the Lord my God any longer or see this wondrous fire any more, lest I die.” Whereupon the Lord said to me, “They have done well in speaking thus. I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself: I will put My words in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command him; and if anybody fails to heed the words he speaks in My name, I myself will call him to account.

Deuteronomy 18:15-19 (JPS Tanakh)

Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!”

John 9:35 (NASB)

But while it may not be obvious that Jesus was, in some sense, King upon his first coming, he certainly was a prophet, the prophet foretold in this week’s Torah portion.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Matthew 16:13-16 (NASB)

When Moses was speaking of God raising a prophet like him, in one sense, he was speaking of all the prophets who came after him. The text immediately after the prophesy describes how to determine if one is a valid prophet or not.

Moses would not be the last of the prophets. He would have successors. Historically this was so. From the days of Samuel to the Second Temple period, each generation gave rise to men – and sometimes women – who spoke G‑d’s word with immense courage, unafraid to censure kings, criticize priests, or rebuke an entire generation for its lack of faith and moral integrity.

-Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth
“Testing Prophecy”
Chabad.org

Of course, this test should be applied to all who claim to be prophets and most importantly to one who claims to be Messiah, for if his prophesies are not true, then not only is he not a prophet, but he cannot be Moshiach.

There was, however, an obvious question: How does one tell a true prophet from a false one? Unlike kings or priests, prophets did not derive authority from formal office. Their authority lay in their personality, their ability to give voice to the word of G‑d, their self-evident inspiration. But precisely because a prophet has privileged access to the word others cannot hear, the visions others cannot see, the real possibility existed of false prophets – like those of Baal in the days of King Ahab. Charismatic authority is inherently destabilizing. What was there to prevent a fraudulent, or even a sincere but mistaken, figure, able to perform signs and wonders and move the people by the power of his words, from taking the nation in a wrong direction, misleading others and perhaps even himself?

-Lord Rabbi Sacks

the-prophetI’m sure this is how at least some Jewish people see Jesus if they acknowledge his ability to do signs and wonders as well as the power of his words of teaching. We know from the Biblical record that this is how some Jewish people even in the days Jesus walked in Israel thought of him. Christian apologetics tend to defend Jesus based on Jewish prophesy, but can they, can we defend him based on his own prophecies?

Unfortunately, while there is just tons and tons of information about the prophesies referring to Messiah, but I can’t immediately find anything available about the prophesies spoken by Jesus. Do we call these his prophesies?

From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day.

Matthew 16:21

“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.'”

Matthew 25:31-34

Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Matthew 26:64

As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples *said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.”

Mark 13:1-2

“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near. Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those who are in the midst of the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, so that all things which are written will be fulfilled. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people; and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

Luke 21:20-24

Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. Some of the people therefore, when they heard these words, were saying, “This certainly is the Prophet.”

John 7:37-40

rambamCertainly the prophesies where Jesus foretold his own death were accurate, as were the words he spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. But he hasn’t returned in power yet to restore Israel, return the exiles, and rebuild the Temple. It is these prophesies modern Jews point to and say, “he didn’t fulfill these,” thus declaring that Jesus can’t have been the Messiah.

There are other prophesies in the Bible that just “hang out there” in the air awaiting fulfillment. It is only faith that allows us to wait for them, just as observant Jews faithfully await the coming of Messiah, as Rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides or Rambam said in the twelfth of his Thirteen Principles of Faith:

I believe with a complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may delay, nevertheless, every day I anticipate that he will come.

There is much evidence in scripture that Jesus (Yeshua) is the awaited Messiah, that he came and will return, but there is not absolute proof. We are expected to also exercise faith. One of the criticisms of the “two comings model” of Messiah is that it’s been nearly two-thousand years since his death, resurrection, and ascent. Why does he delay? What’s he waiting for? Isn’t the world screwed up enough yet? Aren’t we long overdue for a Savior?

Jesus said he would return “soon” (Revelation 22:20), but apparently that isn’t “soon” by human standards. On the other hand, the prophet Jonah declared that in forty days, the great city Ninevah would be overthrown (Jonah 4:4) but the King, the city, and even the animals repented (Jonah 4:5-9) and as a result, God relented and did not destroy Ninevah (Jonah 4:10), which made Jonah pretty unhappy.

But since Jonah made a prophesy and it didn’t come true (because God apparently overrode the prophesy), does that make Jonah a false prophet? It doesn’t appear so. Then what happened?

Of course, Ninevah was eventually destroyed, so their repentance wasn’t what you would call “permanent.” But that’s not good enough. Jonah said that Ninevah would be destroyed in forty days, not eventually.

Rabbi Sacks has, what for Christians, is an uncomfortable answer.

Fundamental conclusions follow from this. A prophet is not an oracle: a prophecy is not a prediction. Precisely because Judaism believes in free will, the human future can never be unfailingly predicted. People are capable of change. G‑d forgives. As we say in our prayers on the High Holy Days: “Prayer, penitence and charity avert the evil decree.” There is no decree that cannot be revoked. A prophet does not foretell. He warns. A prophet does not speak to predict future catastrophe but rather to avert it. If a prediction comes true it has succeeded. If a prophecy comes true it has failed.

This only applies to what Rabbi Sacks calls a “negative prophecy,” one that foretells some dire event or punishment. If it comes true, then God kept His word. If it does not come true (in the case of Ninevah), it meant that the people repented and God relented of His punishment. They heeded God’s warning and He was merciful.

But what of Messiah’s prophesies of his return as King? First, no specific time frame was set except “soon.” In fact, we are told that he will come as a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:2), and that no one, not even the angels in Heaven, know the time of Messiah’s return (Mark 13:32). However, let’s assume that (here’s the problematic part) human beings have some sort of impact on the timing of Messiah. There are many opinions in Judaism about this timing. Some say that only when Israel is completely faithless will he return, others say only when Israel is completely faithful. However, there is an enduring idea that in some way our behavior or our worthiness or lack of worthiness all affect exactly when Messiah will come.

tallit-prayerHuman free will doesn’t override God’s plan, but in Judaism, free will has an “interactive” relationship with that plan, making some adjustments on it. It’s like God’s plan is a mighty river. The river cannot be stopped, but the various objects and structures in the river might affect its flow one way or the other. It will still wind its way to the delta and meet the ocean, so the end is a foregone conclusion, but the little details potentially are adjustable.

That’s one way of looking at the return of the King. It probably won’t be palatable to Christians, but then, we tend not to want to think in those directions, anyway.

So what do we have? We have a Jesus who we know was a prophet in his first coming and who less obviously also was a King, at least in his service to Israel up to and including his sacrificial death. As prophet, the events he prophesied that have already come to pass can be verified (his death and resurrection, the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem). But the prophesies of his return cannot be verified for they have yet to arrive.

It is faith that helps us believe that the prophesies will be fulfilled, and that we will see the return of the Messiah King.

Addendum: Rabbi Joshua Brumbach wrote an excellent commentary on this week’s Torah Portion that also addresses Messiah as a Prophet like Moses, but from a Jewish perspective: Why Do We Need Yeshua? I encourage you to read it.

Good Shabbos.

47 days.

Does the Messiah Wait for Us?

As much as a Jew may wrestle to separate himself from his G‑d and his people, the undercurrent of indignation remains endemic to his Jewish psyche, a gnawing conviction that the world is not the way it should be. The Jew aches with expectation, and blatantly demands that the world act according to the beauty it inherently contains.

Yes, there is a way the world is supposed to be. Inherently beautiful, it feigns ugliness; fathomless in wisdom, it acts stupid; like the creation of a master craftsmen brutally dismantled, its parts scattered across a dirt floor; as a philharmonic orchestra tuning up, fragmented into a nightmare of chaos and discord, holding its audience in tortured anticipation.

But we are not the audience; we are the musicians. The instruments are in our hands, such devices to unite humankind as we have never held before; tools to obsolesce ignorance, hunger and need, to plunge the depths of our universe’s wisdom, to know its oneness, the oneness of its Creator.

Do we await a human messiah?

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Do the Jewish People Still Expect a Messiah?”
from the “Chassidic Thought” series
Chabad.org

It’s no secret that Christians and Jews have radically different perceptions of the Messiah. For a Jew, the Messiah is a King, fully human, someone born of human (Jewish) parents, a latter-day Moses. For Christians, the Messiah is the Son of God, supernatural, both man and God. Ultimately Divine.

It doesn’t sound like we’re talking about the same guy, does it?

Actually, a recent book written by noted Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin, describes how it is possible for the Jesus of the New Testament to have been perceived by his Jewish contemporaries as both Messiah King and Son of God, though from Boyarin’s point of view, their understanding of his identity was fatally flawed (some have said the same thing about Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels”).

If it were just a matter of the difference between how the church and the synagogue viewed the identity the Messiah, I suppose the distinctions would be clear and the conclusion would be that Christians and Jews will never agree on who the Messiah is or his role in the redemption of both Israel and the world.

But then there are Jews who accept Jesus as the Jewish Messiah King, but with an “appearance,” if you will, that is distinctly more “Jewish” than most Christians would feel comfortable with. It is in “Messianic Judaism” that we see the intersection between the New Testament Jesus and the Jewish Moshiach. It’s not easy making these two guys live together. Heck. It’s not easy even getting them to sit down together in the same room for ten minutes at a time.

Why is that?

A lot of how we understand Jesus/Messiah has been crafted post-Second Temple period and probably the picture we have today has been painted a lot more recently than that. I’m neither a Bible scholar nor a historian, so I can’t comment on any of those details, but it occurs to me (and I’m sure it has occurred to many others) that the Jesus who walked and talked with Peter, Matthew, and John looked, sounded, and acted quite a bit differently than most people in the church would imagine. He also didn’t really fit the mold of how the Messiah is conceived of among Jewish people today (hence the dissonance). He certainly didn’t (at that time) fulfill all of the Messianic prophecies that should have resulted in him restoring self-rule to Israel rather than letting the Romans virtually level Jerusalem some forty years after his death and resurrection.

So where do we go to get a picture of the “objective Jesus;” the person of Jesus as he really was when he walked among his people, as he taught by the lakes, and as he related parables in the Temple courts?

I’m tempted to say, “the Gospels,” but obviously it’s not that easy, otherwise we’d all have the same, identical image of Jesus and it would be the image John, Peter and the others had of him, too.

This is hardly the first time I’ve written on such a topic. Consider In Search of the Jewish Voice of Jesus, A Christian Seeking Messiah ben David, and The Sacrifice at Golgotha as just a few examples of my previous missives.

So where do we find Jesus the Jew?

That’s a tough one. He isn’t as clearly defined as we’d like to believe, especially in terms of his expectations for his Jewish and Gentile disciples. Did he expect us to all conform to a “One Torah” model, or were there distinctions between groups relative to the mitzvot? There’s no consensus. The debate rages on.

I suppose commentaries like this don’t really help…or do they?

The Nesivos, in the introduction to his Sefer Nachalas Yaakov, asks how we can say in Birchos HaTorah that Hashem chose us from all the nations, when we know that God went to each nation and offered them the Torah? It was only after the other nations refused the offer did God approach Klal Yisroel to offer us the Torah, and even then it was given to us only because of our declaration, ‫ .נעשה ונשמע‬Why, then, in the brocha do we say that God chose us?

The Nesivos answers by pointing out that there are three differences between the mitzvos given to Klal Yisroel and the seven mitzvos given to the other nations. The first difference is that we fulfill a mitzvah when we study the Torah as opposed to the other nations who do not fulfill a mitzvah when they study the seven Noahide laws. Secondly, we were given the inner dimensions of the Torah and the non-Jews were not. Lastly, we were given the authority to decide halachah according to our understanding, and that becomes binding halachah even in shamayim. Non-Jews do not have that authority even for the mitzvos they keep.

The three Birchos HaTorah correspond to these three features. The first brochah, “‫”אשר קדשנו…לעסוק בדברי תורה‬ emphasizes that we were given the Torah to study. The second brochah refers to the inner dimensions of Torah which can not be understood by man without a spirit from Above. The last brochah, “‫”אשר בחר בנו‬ highlights the fact that only Klal Yisroel was given the Torah to decide issues according to our understanding and even had the other nations agreed to accept the Torah they would not have been granted that authority. It is with this idea in mind that we say, “God chose us from all the nations.”

Commentary on Berachos 11b

I asked my friend Gene the following question on his blog:

Obviously, this viewpoint doesn’t take the validity of Jewish and Gentile faith in Jesus (Yeshua) as Messiah into account. I have two questions that are related to the “three differences.” First, if we believe that Jews, according to midrash, fulfill a mitzvah when they study Torah, is this not true when Christians (non-Jews who are disciples of the Jewish Messiah King) study the Bible (New Testament and/or full Bible)? Second, if Jews were given the authority to decide halachah as it applies to them, do not Christians have the same sort of autonomy in deciding whatever “halachah” applies to us based on our understanding of the teachings of Jesus?

You can go to his blog to read the entire transaction between us, but basically he said, “That’s a tough one.” Remember though, that our belief in Jesus as the one, true Messiah and the authority he was given by the Father makes all the difference in the world.

But how was all this supposed to work originally and what does it mean to us now? My best guess is, in the days of Paul, the non-Jewish disciples had a much closer image and conceptualization of the Jewish Messiah as transmitted to them by the Apostle to the Gentiles. Their “observance” of the mitzvot may have more closely approximated what was halachah for the normative Judaism of the day because new disciples tend to imitate their mentors and teachers. They just don’t know any better way of learning than to do what their shepherds and guides are doing.

But all that was lost in the ensuing split between Christianity and Judaism and our mission today is one of rediscovery. Publications such as the DHE Gospels and particularly Tsvi Sadan’s landmark The Concealed Light peer into the shadows of antiquity and illuminate the man who both Jewish and Gentile disciples called “Master” and “King”.

But if we can’t even agree among the Jewish and non-Jewish body of believers who Jesus was and is and what he expects us all to do, how can we unite as brothers and sisters in the faith and do the will of our Master? If it were just a matter of bearing good fruit and choosing to love, there wouldn’t be much of a problem.

But wait! Why does it have to be a problem?

What have we forgotten about what Jesus taught? What were his most important lessons? How to tie tzitzit and lay tefillin? The proper order of service in the synagogue?

No.

His most important Torah mitzvot were these:

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” –Matthew 22:34-40 (ESV)

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. –John 13:34 (ESV)

Why do I continually repeat these specific teachings of the Master? Because these are the Torah commandments of the Messiah we consistently fail to obey.

I know, it’s shocking. We can spend all day every day at our computer keyboards ripping apart the minutiae of specific Bible verses down to the level of Greek and Hebrew translations and citing the experts and authorities who we believe support our various theories, but how many of us actually step away from our PCs and Macs long enough to donate even a single can of soup to our local foodbank or to mow the lawn of the aged couple who live across the street?

Who is the true Jewish Jesus and what does he want of us? He wants us to stop blogging long enough to actually do good and to show love to the least of his little ones. We know that Christians and Jews are waiting for the Messiah. But is he also waiting for us?

Jesus the Traditionalist Jew

However, the Jewish background of the ideas of the Jesus movement is only one piece of the new picture I’m sketching here. Much of the most compelling evidence for the Jewishness of the early Jesus communities comes from the Gospels themselves. The Gospels, of course, are almost always understood as a marker for a very great break from Judaism. Over and over, we find within the interpretations of them (whether pious or scholarly) statements of what a radical break is constituted by Jesus’ teaching with respect to the “Judaism” of his day.

Even among those who recognize that Jesus himself may very well have been a pious Jew – a special teacher, to be sure, but not one instituting a consequential break with Judaism – the Gospels, and especially Mark, are taken as the sign of the rupture of Christianity, of its near-total overturn, of the forms of traditional (Jewish) piety.

-Daniel Boyarin
Chapter 3: “Jesus Kept Kosher”
The Jewish Gospels

I’ve been slowly, very slowly reading Daniel Boyarin’s excellent book The Jewish Gospels and have written regarding my responses to his text in two previous blog posts: The Unmixing Bowl and The Son of Man – The Son of God. Daniel Boyarin is a noteworthy Talmudic scholar and Professor of Talmudic Culture in the Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, so I’d have to say that, at least from my point of view, he knows his stuff. The book I’m reading contains an examination of the “stuff” about the ancient perceptions of Jesus and how it may not have been unusual at all for many Jews in the late Second Temple period to see Jesus as Rabbi, Messiah, Prophet, and indeed, Divine Son of God.

In the third chapter of his book, Boyarin examines the “Jewishness of Jesus”.

For anyone involved in the Messianic or Hebrew Roots movements, the fact that Jesus was (and is) Jewish and that he led a completely normative Jewish lifestyle as recorded in the Gospels is no surprise, but it may have been to Boyarin when he first encountered the “good news” of the Master. I still think that Boyarin isn’t personally convinced that Jesus is Messiah King or Son of God, but he does seem to be strongly suggesting that it is no mystery why Jews in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago (and even more recently in many parts of the world?) would believe that he was.

The portion of Boyarin I quoted above aptly defines how most modern Jews and Christians see the role of the Gospels: as defining a sharp break from Jews and Judaism in the teachings of Jesus and the establishment of the very “unJewish” Christian religion. But as we already know, this was hardly the case.

Counter to most views of the matter, according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus kept kosher, which is to say that he saw himself not as abrogating the Torah but as defining it. There was controversy with some other Jewish leaders as to how best to observe the Law, but none, I will argue, about whether to observe it. According to Mark (and Matthew even more so), far from abandoning the laws and practices of the Torah, Jesus was a staunch defender of the Torah against what he perceived to be threats to it from the Pharisees.

Boyarin characterises the Pharisees as “a kind of reform movement…that was centered on Jerusalem and Judaea (and who) sought to convert other Jews to their way of thinking about God and the Torah.” It’s interesting (since I’ve never heard this interpretation before) that Boyarin characterizes the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees as one of interpretation of halakah. According to Boyarin, the Pharisees may have represented the establishment of religious practices that were formed during the Babylonian exile “while the Jews who remained in the land continued their ancient practices.” Jesus, Boyarin asserts, supported the more ancient Jewish practices and was actually a Torah conservative and traditionalist compared to the “radical innovations in the Law stemming from the Pharisees and Scribes of Jerusalem.”

We usually see Jesus (at least those of us to perceive him as a wholly Jewish man and teacher living a life consistent with the covenant of Sinai) as interpreting the “true” Torah in opposition to the “leaven of the Pharisees” who made up all kinds of stuff and were totally hypocritical. Boyarin suggests that the struggle between the two “Judaisms” may have been one of traditional halakah (Jesus) vs. reform interpretation (Pharisees and Scribes).

Far from being a marginal Jew, Jesus was a leader of one type of Judaism that was being marginalized by another group, the Pharisees, and he was fighting against them as dangerous innovators. This view of Christianity as but a variation within Judaism, and even a highly conservative and traditionalist one, goes to the heart of our description of the relations in the second, third, and fourth centuries between so-called Jewish Christianity and its early rival, the so-called Gentile Christianity that was eventually (after some centuries) to win the day.

I realize that Boyarin’s opinion is a minority view among both Jews and Christians, but it is compelling to consider that the “original” Jesus Christ was not only a Jew who never broke the Laws of Moses or taught others to break them, but was a teacher who was strongly advocating for a return to a very conservative and traditionalist interpretation of Torah relative to the normative Judaism of those times.

Wow.

Imagine what that might mean to 21st century Christianity and Judaism. Imagine what that might mean to the movement we call “Messianic Judaism,” which is struggling tremendously to establish its own Jewish identity and connection to the other Judaisms of our modern era. Jesus the Jewish traditionalist. Jesus the teacher of conservative halakah.

Like I said. Wow.

Apparently, Boyarin isn’t the only Talmud scholar who holds this opinion of the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees.

Yair Furstenberg, a young Talmud scholar at the Hebrew University, has recently provided a convincing explanation of the basic controversy between Jesus and those Pharisees. Furstenberg writes that Jesus’ statement (see Mark 7:14-23) needs to be read literally that the body is made impure not through ingesting impure foods but only through various substances that come out of the body…

…This is a debate between Jews about the correct way to keep Torah, not an attack on the Torah. Furstenberg has brilliantly argued that in its original sense, Jesus’ attack on the Pharisees here is literal; they have changed the rules of the Torah…

Really. Consider this. The argument that most Christians interpret about whether or not Jesus made all foods clean had nothing to do with abrogating the kosher laws. It was an argument between different factions of Jews on what made a person impure, which was not eating food but coming into contact with certain objects and substances such as a dead body or certain bodily fluids (you’ll have to read the whole chapter to get the details since Boyarin’s analysis is lengthy). He even presents a different view of Pharisees as “hypocrites” which doesn’t quite fit with what most Christians believe:

We should remember, however, that “in general, in ancient Jewish and Christian contexts a ‘hypocrite’ is a person whose interpretation of the Law differs from one’s own,” as Joel Marcus has so sharply put it.

That statement recasts the Pharisees in the role, not as liars and frauds, but as Jews who had a (sometimes) radically different perspective on halakah from the more conservative interpretation of Jesus.

Of course, the vast, vast majority of people in the church and probably in the Christian colleges and seminaries won’t agree with this. Boyarin suggests a corrective solution, but I don’t know how many believers, scholarly or otherwise, would be willing to try it out:

When put into its historic context, the chapter is perfectly clear. Mark was a Jew and his Jesus kept kosher. At least in its attitude toward the embodied practices of the Torah, Mark’s Gospel does not in any way constitute even a baby step in the direction of the invention of Christianity as a new religion or as a departure from Judaism at all.

Mark is best read as a Jewish text, even in its most radical Christological moments. Nothing that Mark’s Jesus proposes or argues for or enacts would have been inappropriate for a thoroughly Jewish Messiah, the Son of Man, and what would later be called Christianity is a brilliantly successful – the most brilliantly successful – Jewish apocalyptic and messianic movement.

Those of you who have read more than a few of my blog posts know I’m no Biblical scholar. I don’t have the “chops” to adequately evaluate Boyarin’s perspectives relative to other learned texts and teachers and to determine how much evidence there is to support his assertions. However, in general, what he presents to his readers is quite consistent with what is believed by modern “Messianic Jews” and those Gentiles who are called to follow that path of faith.

Jesus was and is a Jew. This “Jewishness” is written all over the Gospels. Jesus never attempted to depart from normative Jewish practice in even the slightest manner and as we see, he may very well have been advocating for a return to the more conservative and traditional understanding and practice of ancient halakah.

Imagine what this will mean for Christians and Jews everywhere when the Son of Man returns in glory. Imagine what it will mean, and what it should mean, to all of us right now.

Worshiping the God of Israel and giving great and very high honor to the Jewish Messiah King within a completely normative Jewish context is not dead. In fact, when he comes back to us and establishes his throne, it’ll all just be getting started.