Tag Archives: persecution

The Reasons Saul was a Persecutor and Paul was Persecuted

In email exchanges over the last couple of weeks, Paula Fredriksen and I have been comparing views on what might have been the nature of, and cause(s) for, the “persecution” of Jewish Jesus-followers that the Apostle Paul later lamented. There have been various proposals over the years, and hers is to my knowledge the latest. With her agreement for me to do so, I publish a response in this posting.

-Larry Hurtado
‘Paul’s “Persecution” of Jewish Jesus-Followers: Nature & Cause(s)’
Larry Hurtado’s Blog

I read Dr. Larry Hurtado’s blog regularly. He’s one of the leading New Testament scholars currently doing research and publishing his findings, and although I don’t have the educational background to always grasp everything he says, I still feel I learn a lot.

The issue at hand in the above-quoted blog post has to do with the rationale for Paul being “persecuted” by Jews early in his ministry. Were the reasons for such poor treatment of Paul the same reasons Paul had previously in his life when he persecuted “Christians” (in this case, Jewish disciples of Jesus)?

Frankly, it never occurred to me to consider such a question until now. But it’s a good question.

I think the story told in most churches is that “the Jews persecuted the Christians,” indicating that the Jewish followers of Jesus (Heb. “Yeshua”), once they “converted” to “Christianity,” were no longer considered Jews, and thus, were targets for Jewish persecution because they rejected the Law and replaced it with grace.

There are a lot of problems with those assumptions, including the fact that “Christianity” wouldn’t exist as a “stand-alone” religious entity for decades, and was only created once the Gentile disciples split from their Jewish mentors and “refactored” the Bible to reject the Jewish narrative, manufacturing a new Gentile religion, the aforementioned Christianity.

The Jewish Paul
The Jewish Paul

So Jews, at best, could “convert” to a different sect or branch of Judaism, in this case the Pharisaic/Messianic sect, which was virtually identical in its beliefs and practices to the Pharisees with just a few minor adjustments, such as acknowledging the revelation of the Messiah (and following one Messiah or another is a fairly common occurrence across Jewish history), and an unusually liberal policy about admission of Gentiles into their ekklesia (assembly) as co-equal participants in Jewish social and religious space.

Returning to Hurtado and the likely reasons Paul would have been beaten by his own people on numerous occasions, he writes:

In a recent publication, she probes the matter by first addressing Paul’s references to being on the receiving end of floggings by fellow Jews (five times) in the course of his Gentile mission (2 Corinthians 11:24). Her cogent hypothesis is essentially this: Paul required his pagan converts to withdraw from worshipping the gods of the Roman world. Given the place and significance of the gods in Roman-era life, this would have generated serious tensions with the larger pagan community. As he identified himself as a Jew and linked up with Jewish communities in the various diaspora cities where he established early assemblies of Jesus-followers (ekklesias), these Jewish communities could have feared that they would bear the brunt of these tensions. So, Paul was meted out synagogue discipline in the form of the 39 lashes as punishment on several occasions (he mentions five).

I find this entirely reasonable myself. It fits the setting, Paul’s Gentile mission. It fits his own behaviour, continuing to identify himself as a member of his ancestral people all through his ministry as apostle to the Gentiles and herald of the gospel. It fits also with what we know of real and potential tensions over the matter of worship of the traditional deities (of household, city, nation, etc.).

So according to this, Paul wasn’t beaten by his fellow Jews because he had exited Judaism in any sense, was proposing a “foreign” religion, or was thought to be speaking against the Torah of Moses or the Temple. Hurtado even says Paul was “continuing to identify himself as a member of his ancestral people all through his ministry as apostle to the Gentiles.”

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

The issue, as is stated in the quote above, was more likely the tension Paul was generating among the Gentiles by requiring his non-Jewish disciples to cease participation in Roman cultic practices and to be devoted to the God of Israel alone. The synagogues in the diaspora were deeply worried that they would receive the “fallout” from the pagans among whom they lived, which was not an unreasonable fear given the long history of enmity between Jewish and Gentile communities.

But how does this reflect on Paul when he was formerly “persecuting the church,” so to speak? Was Paul (previously “Saul”) worried about pagan Gentile “fallout?”

Hurtado states that Paula Fredriksen believes this likely, but he says otherwise, and lists very specific reasons (see his blog post for the details). In summation, Hurtado writes:

In sum, it seems to me that both the nature and the cause(s) for Paul’s initially violent opposition to the Jewish Jesus-movement were somewhat different from the nature and cause(s) for the synagogue floggings that he later received in the course of his ministry as apostle. I’m inclined to think that Paul’s initial Pharisaic zeal was incited, at least in part, by the christological claims and accompanying devotional practices that he later came to embrace, and that are reflected in his letters. Indeed, his zealousness for his religious traditions may have even made him particularly sensitive to the implications of the christological claims and devotional practices of the early Jesus-circles, perhaps more sensitive than many others, including perhaps even those early Jesus-circles as well! In any case, whatever the reasons for his strenuous initial opposition to the Jesus-movement, his subsequent shift to passionate adherent (e.g., Philippians 3:4-16) remains one of the most remarkable personal stories of the ancient world.

In other words, the bigger deal for Paul was the assertion among Jewish disciples of Messiah, that he was of a Divine nature and that they gave worship to Yeshua normally reserved only for Hashem.

But He kept silent and did not answer. Again the high priest was questioning Him, and saying to Him, “Are You the Christ (Heb. “Messiah” or “Moshiach”), the Son of the Blessed One?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Tearing his clothes, the high priest said, “What further need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy; how does it seem to you?” And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death.

Mark 14:61-64 (NASB)

This answer is what got Jesus killed, not claiming to be the Messiah, which as I said above, isn’t all that unusual a declaration in Jewish history, but stating that he was of Divine nature and appearing as co-equal with God in Heaven.

If Paul was indeed zealous for the Torah, such a claim would certainly have set him off. In fact, we see something similar occurring where Paul was actually involved:

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Acts 7:54-58

stoneAlthough Stephen said a great deal to anger the Jewish court before which he appeared, they didn’t turn murderous until he also described Jesus at the right hand of God. A young Paul (Saul) was present and the death of Stephen no doubt was part of his inspiration to pursue other Jewish believers and for the same reasons, not because it had anything to do with Gentile disciples or pagan community “blowback” on diaspora Jews.

This also touches on another topic Hurtado wrote on yesterday (as you read this) as to whether there was opposition and even persecution of the Greek-speaking Jewish Jesus-believers by the native Israelite Jewish believers. It is another question that would never have occurred to me and you can click the link I provided to explore the matter and read Hurtado’s opinion.

I’m writing about this because it’s yet another illustration how recent scholarly inquiry has dispelled some long-held “truths” in the Church, so-called “sound doctrine,” about “Jews persecuting Christians” for such-and-thus reasons, when indeed, those “truths” are merely long-held “assumptions” based on long-held “traditions”. Those traditions of the Christian church, in my opinion, were born out of the historic tensions that have existed between Christianity and Judaism that go all the way back to when Gentile Christianity violently divorced ancient Messianic Judaism.

I’m not telling Christians not to listen to their Pastors’ sermons or to what Sunday School lessons teach, but it might be a good idea to also pay attention to what Biblical scholarship is doing and what they are writing. It will be years (if ever) before the latest research trickles down to the local church pulpit and into the ears of the average Christian sitting in the pew.

Being a disciple of Jesus isn’t a spectator sport. It’s what you do that counts, including how you study the Bible. You’ll never know Jesus as well as you’d like unless you take an active role in acquiring that knowledge. It’s not just a matter of reading the Bible, although that’s critically important. It’s a matter of paying attention to and critically analyzing the collected body of research about the message of the Bible, what it meant within its original context and to its original audience, and thus what it means to us today.

For more on the early Jewish belief in the Divinity of Jesus, see Derek Leman’s blog post Are We Apostates? Yeshua’s Divinity.

Chukat: The Last Question of the Disciple of Peace

When all the congregation saw that Aaron had died, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days.

Numbers 20:29

Hillel and Shammai received from them. Hillel would say: Be of the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah.

-Pirkei Avot 1:12

Note: This was written before my blog post The Broken Saint.

Last week, I started something of a minor storm in my little corner of the blogosphere by writing a blog post (actually, a series of them) based on Fruit Fruits of Zion‘s (FFOZ) commentary on Torah Portion Shelach. This week, I thought I’d try something different, using FFOZ’s commentary on Torah Portion Chukat to set a more gentle tone.

Why did Israel weep for Aaron thirty days? Aaron was 123 years old when he died, a ripe old age, full of years, yet all Israel wept for Aaron thirty days. Thirty days is the customary term of mourning for a close relative, and Aaron, as high priest over the congregation, was like a close relative to all Israel. According to Jewish tradition, Aaron was especially beloved by all Israel because he was known as a peacemaker.

-FFOZ Torah Commentary

There were thousands in Israel who were called by the name of Aaron, for if not for Aaron, they would not have come into the world. Aaron made peace between husband and wife so that they came together, and they named the child that was born after him.

-Avot d’Rabbi Nattan

Perhaps you are not a fan of midrash and don’t consider Rabbinic commentary to be a valid method of relating to the Bible. Nevertheless, I believe these statements can say a great deal about who we are as disciples of the Master today, or at least they can say something about me.

“They went down to the pit alive” (Numbers 16:30) – even in the grave they think they are alive. There is a blessing contained in “They went down to the pit alive,” as with “the sons of Korach did not die,” (ibid. 26:11) – “a place was established for them (Gehinom; see Megilla 14a) and they repented.” For teshuva, repentance, is effective only while one is still alive. This, then, is the blessing – that even in the pit they will live, and they will be able to effect teshuva.

-from “Today’s Day”
Tuesday, Sivan 26, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschack Meir Kagan

This refers to last week’s Torah portion and is a midrash on the fate of Korach and the others who went down into the pit with him. We know that Korach’s sons survived, and we see here the Rabbinic commentary on how they did so (though I do not take this as literal fact).

But the midrash provides encouragement that even when we have descended so low that everything seems totally hopeless, God will still find a way to redeem us if we repent, if we make teshuvah, if we turn away from our sin and back to Him…perhaps by becoming a peacemaker.

Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought such great sin upon them?” Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil. For they said to me, ‘Make a god for us who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”

Exodus 32:2-5, 21-24

golden calfThe incident of the Golden Calf was perhaps Aaron’s greatest failure, but as we see in this week’s Torah portion, by the time of his death, he was beloved and mourned as one mourns for a father as the commentary said above, Israel mourned Aaron like a close relative.

Redemption is possible, even when everything seems hopeless and everyone is against you…everyone.

Frankfurt, Germany is closed down on Christmas, and I took the opportunity to visit Heidelberg, an hour away by rail. I walked through the train looking for a window seat where, guidebooks in hand, I could follow all the storied towns along the way. My eyes fell upon a young man wearing a black skullcap. An Orthodox Jew, I thought. Despite the pallid face of a yeshiva bocher, and the yarmulke clasped to his hair in traditional style, there was something troubling about the identification.

“Funny, you don’t look Jewish.” The punch line from a joke about Chinese Hebrews tickled my mind. The face looked German and the hair in careful, casual wisps gently falling over the forehead suggested mod or punk rock.

-Burton Caine
“Strangers on a Train in Germany”

Caine’s chance encounter with another Jew on a train from Frankfurt initially seemed a little odd but the mystery deepened considerably as their conversation progressed. Caine’s traveling companion was a German, born of German parents, and except for a few years of study in Israel, the young gentleman had lived all his life in his native country.

Caine inquired and found the fellow studied Bible, Talmud, and Hebrew in West Berlin, even though opportunities to do are not common there. He was traveling to Darmstadt, the place of origin of the famous 15th century manuscript of the Haggadah.

But why was Caine so bothered by the other man’s appearance. He didn’t look Jewish. Do all Jews necessarily look “Jewish”? What cues was Caine picking up on that told him there was a lot more to this person’s story?

The train was slowing down now and time was running out. Had I missed every clue? Calm down, I whispered to myself; not every Jew in Germany has a saga. He bent down to put his books into his bag, and the black skullcap now confronted me as a blatant proclamation of his orthodoxy. Why that suggested to me the key question, I cannot imagine, but I blurted it out.

“How do your parents react to your piety?”

“Badly,” he said with a wan smile as he buttoned his coat. “They are very hostile.” He spared me the final question. The train stopped; we had reached Darmstadt. He turned to go and paused only to add, “They were Nazis and are bitter anti-Semites. I converted to Judaism,” which he repeated in English as if he was not sure of the Hebrew word.

“They never forgave me. I am going home to visit them on Christmas.”

This story was originally published in the Christian Science Monitor in 1987 and the dating of the original encounter seems like it should be years before that.

Man alone in a caveOne young man’s answer to the Holocaust, to his parents being Nazis and bitter anti-Semites, was to convert to Judaism. Perhaps that was the only way he could atone and make teshuvah. Who is to say (according to midrash) how the sons of Korach made teshuvah in the pit, suspended between life and death, and thus were saved? Was this one person’s way to become a peacemaker, by turning away from the path of his parents and turning toward the world of their victims?

Imagine, a Jew going home to visit his anti-Semitic parents for Christmas in the heart of Germany. How much more alone could he possibly feel?

Although (hopefully), the religious blogosphere isn’t as hostile as I imagine it was for a Jewish convert visiting his ex-Nazi parents for Christmas, it isn’t always a friendly place, either. It seems as if there’s an endless series of taunts and barbs being tossed back and forth, either as an active “dialog” or, as I recently discovered, “covert” blog posts based on private email exchanges. It seems that you can’t say anything, publicly or privately, without it becoming grist for the mill.

Not only that, but even within the same, basic theological construct, interpretations and opinions vary widely and each side holds fast to their position, defending it vigorously, taking no prisoners.

Who wants to be a part of that? If this is the “Church” established by Jesus Christ, the “ekklesia” of Messiah for his disciples and the worshipers of the God of Israel, why would I want to be a member of such a divisive “club”?

I periodically think of quitting. As I write this, I haven’t been to church in a couple of weeks. Once was because it was Father’s Day and I used that as a justification for “taking it easy” at home. Last Sunday, I was just tired, I had done my Sunday school homework, it wasn’t particularly stimulating, and I felt I could get more mileage out of just studying at home.

But if I am committed to worshiping with a community, then it’s not right to “dodge” them. I did have coffee with a good friend that afternoon, a devout believer for over forty years. We periodically toss about the idea of starting a small Torah study, but who would we invite who would (or could) be interested and illuminated by such an endeavor?

And then there’s the online religious world. There are days I could drop the whole thing like a hot rock. I know it seems odd for me to say that, since I’m such a prolific blogger, even when I try not to be. But who needs opponents and “frienemies” taking pot shots at you, while people you thought were your friends don’t say anything at all?

But then, on Rabbi Packouz’s Torah commentary, I found this:

Failure is when one stops trying, not when one doesn’t succeed.


There are times when I don’t even know what I’m trying to succeed at but I know that whatever I’m doing, if I quit, I’ve failed.

Meriam Ibrahim
Daniel Wani and Meriam Ibrahim

This probably comes under the heading of first world problems since none of my “religious issues” (and recently, I was confronted on exactly that) even come close to the persecution Christians experience around the world, not the least of which is the plight of Pastor Saeed Abedini and his family or Miriam Ibrahim’s struggles, though praise God, she was released from prison and no longer faces the death penalty (but then I recently heard she was re-arrested trying to leave the country).

Christian persecution always has external sources, people, other religious groups, nations, who are against the disciples of Christ. But Christianity is also its own worst enemy (and for the sake of this one blog post, I’ll toss the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements and their many variants into the mix). We’re always worse off when the world doesn’t attack us because then we attack each other. So much for “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9).

Which brings us back to Aaron and this week’s Torah Portion. As the first High Priest of God and brother to Moses, Aaron lived a larger-than-life existence. Just being among that first generation of Israelites that left Egypt, to see all they had seen would have been marvelous and terrifying.

But Aaron also lived a very human existence, he was flawed and he struggled, in some ways, just like the rest of us. But it’s not always just about what you’ve left behind, but how you’ve lived, and Aaron lived before God, presided in the Tabernacle as Kohen Gadol, provided atonement for all of Israel in the Most Holy Place once a year.

And yet, Hillel and Shammai remembered him first and foremost as a maker of peace, and adjured others to be like Aaron’s disciples.

What is it to be like Messiah’s disciples? What are we to do in the face of an imperfect life, existing within an imperfect “Church” (and I use the term in the widest possible sense), filled with imperfect people?

I wish I had an answer to give you. I’d love to have that answer myself. But the only thing I keep returning to is not how to succeed but how to avoid failure. As much as I sometimes want to, I can’t give up. It’s not that I’m some sort of guru or wise man (or wise guy) or visionary. I’m only me. One ordinary human being who happens to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and who is constantly challenged by the enormity of that role (and make no mistake, you’re in the same boat I am…being an “ordinary” believer doesn’t mean fading into the woodwork).

I have no long-term plans. I live in a world where God can turn human plans on their ear in a heartbeat. In such a place, I simply stand before God and ask, “Here I am, God. What do I do now?” I think the answer God gave Aaron was, “live, serve, and die, and after that, continue to live before God”. Regardless of the paths we each travel along in our faith, that’s probably the only answer any of us will receive.

He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 1:21

“The opposite of defeat is hope.”


Putting a New Face on Sunday School

In verses 22-23 of Acts 22, Give the details of the “hissy fit” Paul’s Jewish audience threw when he used the “G” word.

Have you or I ever felt or expressed similar emotions when we didn’t get out way in church? (The “no” word) How does submission allow the Lord to bring about spiritual growth in our worthy walk with Him?

-from the Sunday school study notes
on Acts 22:22-29 for June 8th

My Sunday school teacher has a tendency to compare apples with oranges and believe he is actually comparing apples to apples. For instance:

“And He said to me, ‘Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”

They listened to him up to this statement, and then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!” And as they were crying out and throwing off their cloaks and tossing dust into the air, the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, stating that he should be examined by scourging so that he might find out the reason why they were shouting against him that way.

Acts 22:21-24 (NASB)

Teacher was comparing a near-riot situation not only to a “hissy fit” (which Urban Dictionary defines as a “sudden outburst of temper, often used to describe female anger at something trivial”) but to any relatively minor situation a person might experience in church that would cause them unhappiness or displeasure.

Either he thinks people’s problems in church border on crowd violence or he grossly minimizes the angst, frustration, fear, pain, and anger of the Jewish people whose land has been occupied by a pagan foreign army and who were highly sensitized to any offense by Gentiles during a moed such as Shavuot.

Since I published my previous blog post which merely anticipated last Sunday’s class, people have been asking me how class actually went. This is the answer.

Apostle Paul preachingI decided I could not remain completely silent and let what I considered to be unfair or inaccurate statements about Paul’s situation in particular or Christianity’s attitude about Judaism and Jewish people in general go unanswered. While I chose to ignore the “hissy fit” comment (though I was surprised at the number of people in class who agreed that the Jews in the above-quoted passage were merely “throwing a childish fit”), I did zero in on the humanity and the group dynamics of the situation.

I pointed out that presumably, some “Jews from Asia” (Acts 21:27) had been spreading rumors in Jerusalem that Paul had been “teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (Acts 21:21), and also that he had “even brought Greeks into the temple and [had] defiled [the] holy place.”

It only takes a few agitators to stir up a large crowd and start a riot. Jerusalem’s population had swelled to millions of Jews in preparation of Shavuot, and it was always during the moadim that emotions ran especially high. Any upset or offense at all, particularly the thought that a pagan Gentile would be taken into the Temple by a Jew who was presumed to be sympathetic to pagans if not a Roman collaborator, would be cause enough for disaster.

Now the Passover and Unleavened Bread were two days away; and the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to seize Him by stealth and kill Him; for they were saying, “Not during the festival, otherwise there might be a riot of the people.”

Mark 14:1-2 (NASB)

We see even the Romans (not to mention the chief priests and scribes) could not execute the Master with impunity for fear of the crowds. In fact, in Acts 22, the Roman military authorities are doing all they can to prevent such a mass disturbance.

riotingSince none of that qualifies as a “hissy fit,” I decided to toss my two cents into the hat, so to speak, and explain all of this to the class. My teacher was in totally agreement and no one spoke up to suggest otherwise, though I can’t possibly know what anyone was thinking. My one regret was that the individual who previously made the Anti-Gentilism remark wasn’t present to either respond or not respond. But that was probably for the best since I can be more sure that my motivations were clear of the desire to make my own “response” to this person.

Earlier that morning, Pastor was extremely careful to point out that Paul’s troubles weren’t what we might consider in modern times to be “Jews persecuting a Christian.” At that moment in history, in Jerusalem, all of the people involved, apart from the Romans, are Jesus-believing Jews and Jews from other religious streams. The most accurate picture, in my personal opinion, we can paint, is that differing or opposing Jewish religious sects were engaged in “passionate” disagreement up to and including violent outbursts.

But perceiving that one group were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” As he said this, there occurred a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. And there occurred a great uproar; and some of the scribes of the Pharisaic party stood up and began to argue heatedly, saying, “We find nothing wrong with this man; suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” And as a great dissension was developing, the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them and ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force, and bring him into the barracks.

Acts 23:6-10 (NASB)

Last week in one of my reviews of D. Thomas Lancaster’s Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series, I wrote that Lancaster taught that the Pharisees and the Messianic Jewish believers all had virtually identical theology and doctrine. They both believed in the world to come, they both believed that God rewarded good and punished evil, both in this world and the world to come, they both believed in the resurrection of the dead, and they both believed in the Holy Spirit and in angelic beings.

But the Sadducees believed in none of that, which is what, according to Lancaster, resulted in the Sadducees barring the Messianic believers from the Temple prompting the Hebrews letter-writer to pen his epistle, and why the Sadducees and Pharisees sitting on the Sanhedrin argued so strenuously, putting Paul’s safety and even his life in danger.

That’s not the same as one religion persecuting another, dissimilar religion.

The Jewish PaulIn fact, in verse 6, Paul said, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees…,” and Pastor pointed this out, not I was a Pharisee. There was nothing inconsistent with being a Pharisee and coming to the realization that Yeshua was the Messiah, Son of God. Yeshua-devotion seems to have been the natural, logical, Biblical extension of Pharisaism in late second-Temple Judaism.

So we might even say (though I could be stepping out on a limb here), that modern Messianic Judaism, in some sense, is the inheritor of first century Pharisaic/Messianic Judaism.

As Sunday school class ended, a gentleman who looked familiar to me, but not in that context, approached me and introduced himself. Actually, he reminded me that he’s the father of my son Michael’s best friend. Apparently, he and his wife had attended this church some years back but left to plant another church in the community. They’ve returned, presumably for some time, so it’s become a more interesting situation.

I recall the few times I’ve spoken with this person before. He’s always been personable and interactive. Very much a “traditional Christian” but willing to listen and discuss my “Jewish” ideas.

No one else in class (or in church) has any connection to my family or my family’s history (my son has known this gentleman and his family for well over a decade, though I’ve only met them just a few times over the years) so I wonder how or if this will affect my future contributions? The situation certainly puts a new face on Sunday school.

One more thing. Pastor did talk about Christians who are being persecuted in the world today, and specifically Pastor Sergey Kosyak of Donetsk in the Ukraine. Please pray for him and for all the Christians who are authentically in danger, being injured, being incarcerated, being murdered for the sake of their faith in Jesus Christ. May God be with them and protect them all.

The Terrible Living God

terror-keepers-of-the-faithMany people express gratitude to the Almighty for being saved from desperate and problematic situations. But surely they’d have preferred that the problem would have never have arisen in the first place!

This, however, is not the proper attitude. The purpose of all problems is that they should serve as a means for a person to become closer to the Almighty. Both the problems – and the solutions – are part of the Divine plan to help elevate you.

The next time you are faced with a problem, think for a moment: “This problem enables me to become closer to my Creator.”

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #756: Problems Bring Us Closer”

The world is not obstructing you. It is challenging you.

It knows its deepest treasures can be revealed only by the deepest faculties of your soul, and it taps those powers by providing isometrics for the soul.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Gosh, that all sounds so reasonable, so wonderful, so illuminating, so wise. I bet there are plenty of Christian writers who give similar advice. Just reading the words, I can imagine many other religions and philosophies also offer such an outlook and I don’t doubt that there are just tons and tons of books, including secular self-help books, that say more or less the same thing.

But when you’re actually having real problems, you may not immediately think in a cheerful inner voice, “Gee, this is a challenge God is giving me to help elevate me and bring me closer to Him.” You more likely are praying to God something like, “HELP!

I’m not saying that Rabbi Pliskin and Rabbi Freeman are wrong, just that such enlightened perspectives (and the vast majority of self-help aids on the market) fail to take real human beings with real worries, fears, and anxieties into account. They don’t consider the actual, lived experience of a person who is recovering from a serious accident or illness, who has just heard the news that a loved one is terminally ill, who has just had their house foreclosed, who has just had…

…you get the idea.

My father said: Truth is the middle path. An inclination to the right, to be overly stringent with oneself and find faults or sins not in accord with the truth, or an inclination to the left, to be overly indulgent, covering one’s faults or being lenient in demands of avoda out of self-love – both these ways are false.

“Today’s Day”
Thursday, 27 Adar I, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

Life, like truth, runs a middle path. Most of us aren’t incredibly holy and elevated people and most of us, if we have a spiritual awareness at all, aren’t feeding on the bottom of the river with the catfish either.

But people with a spiritual awareness can often drift off center, and when hard times come, we can either treat ourselves harshly, like we must have done something horrible to deserve this tragedy, or we may think that it’s totally unfair of God to let bad things happen to us and that He should cut us some slack. I’ve experienced both and “lived in” both places, and in my experience, hitting that “middle ground” is a very hard thing to do. It seems to be more reasonable and takes a lot less energy to just let yourself go emotionally and spiritually “limp” and throw yourself on the mercy of the court, which in this case is God.

But then Rabbi Freeman says:

There’s no such thing as defeat.

There’s always another chance. To believe in defeat is to believe that there is something, a certain point in time that did not come from Above.

Know that G‑d doesn’t have failures. If things appear to worsen, it is only as part of them getting better. We fall down only in order to bounce back even higher.

failureKind of makes me wonder if Rabbi Freeman has ever been in a situation where he’s felt defeated. Probably so, but one doesn’t successfully write motivational missives by admitting to such a thing.

You may gather from the topic in today’s meditation that I’ve been having a bad time lately, but that’s not actually true. However, I do sometimes react when I read advice articles or columns that I think are overly “perky.” I’m not sure that “religious people” always know how to cut someone enough slack to be compassionate without being so “mushy” that they (we) become enabling.

On the other hand, I think that there are times when we need to be confident in our faith and, in spite of the problems that are kicking us in the teeth, we need to persevere and push on. Certainly people like Brother Yun have had to do just that over and over again while being tortured, while being in prison, while being on the run from the law, while being hungry, while being homeless, and all of his other experiences as a Pastor and an Evangelist in Communist China.

But I also think there are times when the weight of a thousand, thousand problems, pressures, hurts, injuries, depressions, and hopeless situations land with a solid “thunk” on our chests and threaten to smash us flatter than a hockey puck and all we can to is cry out to God. Sometimes we can’t even do that and as we feel faith and even life oozing out of us, the only thing left is to give in and say, “God, do as You will,” and then let whatever’s going to happen, happen.

The trick is to know the difference. Neat trick. I wish I could learn it.

Or maybe I don’t. I’ve noticed that those people who have sincerely asked God to use them in a powerful way often experience trials and circumstances that were and are a lot tougher than they anticipated. Brother Yun made such a request of God and if you’ve read my review of his book (see the link above), you’ll know that he suffered tremendously.

For that matter, look at the lives of Paul, Peter, John, and the other apostles. Most of all, look at the life of Jesus.

During a sermon a few weeks ago, my Pastor told a story. The story was about a Pastor who was giving a preaching series on discipleship. The series took many weeks to complete and was very thorough. When the Pastor finished his series, one of the long-time church members approached him and said:

Thank you Pastor for giving such an informative and insightful sermon on discipleship. Now that I understand what a disciple is and what it takes to be a good one, I don’t want to be a disciple anymore.

That’s supposed to inspire a “knowing” chuckle from the audience.

heavy-burdenWe always say that we’ll pick up our cross and follow Jesus anywhere, but how true is that? Do we put limits on how far we’ll go for our faith? Do we ever ask Jesus when we’re following him, why the territory seems to be getting so gloomy, scary, and dangerous looking?

Probably. Expecially in America and other Western nations, Christians aren’t used to having to work too hard at that “picking up cross and following” thing. Frankly, we should be afraid of it because we don’t really understand the implications, and if we did, we wouldn’t want them.

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”

Luke 22:31-34 (ESV)

I think we all know how that one turned out. Actually, in an ultimate sense, it turned out well, but not in the short run.

So what does that mean for us? Should we limit what we do for God because of the potential consequences? Should we stiffen our spines and just take what God gives us, no matter what, and be happy about it? I’d like to say the latter, but it scares me. I know faith demands the latter, but what will happen?

Becoming a Christian is like getting married. When the idea comes up and even as you approach the wedding day, everything seems great. You look forward to it. You see only the rewards. Then the big day comes, there’s the ceremony, all of your friends and family are there, you have the reception, you get lots of gifts and attention, sure there’s stress involved, but it’s hardly noticable in the whirlwind of activity.

Then there’s the honeymoon, setting up housekeeping, everything seems wonderful at first, you see only the good.

Then you have your first fight. A year passes, children a born, other years pass, you change, your spouse changes, and something interesting happens.

Stuff that you never, ever imagined would happen, happens. It could be stuff people, your parents, your Pastor, a counselor, tried to tell you would happen, but you didn’t listen or figured it would be no big deal. It could be stuff that you never imagined would occur in a million years. Stuff that only happens to other people. Stuff that you didn’t even think was possible.

But all that stuff makes your marriage hard!

You even think of divorce.

Actually, lots and lots of people get divorced and lots and lots of people stop being Christians and leave the church. End of story. It was too hard to be married. It’s too hard to be a disciple of Christ.

But then there are many, many other marriages that last thirty, forty, fifty, sixty or more years. Some of these marriages have managed to retain the love and devotion that the couple felt from the start, although the “magic” comes and goes periodically throughout the relationship. And then there are many, many other marriages where the relationship lasts just as long but the couple have drifted apart. Maybe some big problem forcefully inserted the initial wedge between them and then they traveled in different directions or maybe the initial “disconnect” was so subtle that neither husband nor wife noticed.

And now they live in the same house, eat the same meals, maybe even sit on the same sofa and watch the same TV shows, but they are actually living two separate lives. They never fight. They never argue. They never cuddle. They never make love. They’re just there.

“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

Revelation 3:15-22 (ESV)

goldilocksThat probably describes a lot of Christians and a lot of Christian churches. The real tragedy is that these folks actually want it that way. A lukewarm bath is comfortable. Kind of like Goldilocks and the porridge. Not too hot and not too cold.

And not too demanding, stressful, or dangerous.

Lots of Christians describe themselves as “on fire for the Lord.” But fire burns out. Coals grow cold. Fuel turns to ashes.

How do we respond? First off, we should be careful what we ask for. Secondly, we should ask to be built up, so when God really does ask for something outrageous and spectactular from us, it doesn’t come as a complete shock. We’ve been prepared.

We should ask for mercy. Paul asked three times that his “thorn” (whatever it may have been) be removed from him, but the Lord said that his grace was all Paul needed. Pray that when the moment comes, we can let the Lord’s grace be all that we need as well.

And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Hebrews 10:30-31 (ESV)

Each of us is fighting a hard battle in our lives. Pray that God will show compassion and mercy to us all, for if we haven’t realized it yet, we have all failed and will all fail…and then fall into the hands of the living God.

The Heavenly Man: A Book Review

heavenly-manOne day we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ and be required to account for our lives. Now is the time to repent, before it is too late! “In the past, God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). Dear friend, if you sense the conviction of the Holy Spirit tugging at your conscience, then fall on your knees and cry out to God from a repentant heart. Ask the Holy Spirit to take full control of your life and to help you daily walk in humility and dependence on Him.

-Brother Yun (with Paul Hattaway) from “Repentance,” pg 21
The Heavenly Man: The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun

Those are the final words that appear in Brother Yun’s book, which are actually from another book by Brother Yun and placed after the index to provoke interest in Brother Yun’s teachings. In reading them, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this:

Then a certain sage arose to test him and said, “Teacher, what should I do to take possession of eternal life?” He said to him, ‘What is written in the Torah? How do you read it? He answered and said, “Love HaShem your God with all your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your strength, and with all of your knowledge – and your fellow as yourself.” He said to him, “You have answered well. Do this and live.”

Luke 10:25-28 (DHE Gospels)

The words of the Master sum up Brother Yun’s life well (not that Brother Yun isn’t still with us). In reading his book we see the story of a young and powerful disciple of the Master, a boy in China, just barely 16 when he first encounters Christ, and the amazing tale of his progression as a teacher, a Pastor, and an emissary for the Lord throughout the hazardous expanse of Communist China from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s. How many times was Yun (actual name Liu Zhenying) sought after by the authorities as a fugitive from the law for the “crime” of preaching the Gospel? How many times was he arrested, tortured, beaten, starved, ridiculed, tried, imprisoned, and left to rot in some filthy cage? How many times did he cry out to Jesus, not for his own sake, but for the sake of his family, his fellow prisoners, even for those guards and officers who were abusing him?

Even after his eventual escape from China to Germany and the west, how many trials did he suffer? How long was he separated from his family who he had to leave behind in China? How much did they suffer even after they left China but were trapped in Myanmar? Even in the west, the stories that came out of China about his struggles, about the many miracles Yun had witnessed and been a part of, about the amazing movement of the Holy Spirit that enabled thousands and even millions of Chinese citizens to hear the Gospel when Bibles were in short supply and when very little was known about God, the Christ, and the holy scriptures, how many Christians disbelieved and called Yun a liar?

I have to admit, the more “supernatural” aspects of his story seem amazing and even farfetched to me too, but perhaps we don’t see miracles in our lives because we don’t depend on God so strongly for mere day-to-day survival. We aren’t in a Communist prison, tortured daily, exposed to horrible diseases, beaten not only by guards but by our fellow prisoners, dragged through human filth, barely fed, and all the while, commanded by God to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to those who are not only his enemies but ours.

The vast majority of the book is a chronicle of what it is like to be a Pastor and an evangelist in a country where even owning a Bible and declaring yourself a Christian is a crime punishable by many years in prison or even death. This was brother Yun’s life for nearly thirty years and it illustrates the stark contrast between the life of an outspoken and courageous believer in atheist China and the comfortable lifestyle of Christians in America.

Beyond what you might expect from such a life story, two points stood out…well, three, but I’ll get to that.

The first point I’ve already talked about in a previous meditation:

However, after a few years these same mission organizations started putting other books at the top of the bags of Bibles. These were books about one particular denomination’s theology, or teaching that focused on certain aspects of God’s Word.

This, I believe, was the start of disunity among many of China’s house churches.

These booklets told us we must worship in a certain way, or that we must speak in tongues to be a true believer, or that only if we were baptized in Jesus’ name (instead of in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) could we be saved. Other teachings focused on extreme faith, still others argued for or against the role of women in the church.

We read all these booklets and soon we were confused! The churches started to split into groups that believed one thing against groups that believed another. Instead of only speaking for Jesus, we also started speaking against other believers who didn’t conform to our views.

-Yun/Hattaway, pg 233

infinite_pathsThe concept of denominations was all but unknown in the world of Brother Yun and the people to whom he ministered, the majority of them being uneducated farmers and peasants. Introducing ideas like “theology,” “doctrine,” and “dogma” resulted in a terrific whirlwind of chaos and confusion in the different churches among the Chinese faithful, producing years of discord and disunity among them.

But the second thing that got my attention was this:

The path of following the Lord Jesus Christ is not an easy one. Along the way lies suffering and hardship, but nothing we experience will ever compare to the suffering Jesus endured for us on the cross.

I have a problem with the “prosperity” teaching prevalent today, which tells us if we follow the Lord we’ll be safe and comfortable. This is completely contrary to Scripture as well as to our experiences in China. In addition to serving years in prison, I’ve been arrested about thirty different times for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

To follow God is a call not only to live for him, but to die for him also.

-Yun/Hattaway, pg 214

For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.

Romans 14:8 (ESV)

I too have been critical of prosperity theology which I believe is not only unscriptural but a cruel joke, given the lives of people such as Brother Yun.

Paul knew what it was to live a life of hardship and difficulty and ultimately to also die for Messiah. So did Peter, James, John, and the other devoted disciples. So have an army of men and women across the span of time and the history of the church who have been martyred for the sake of the gospel. Although Yun did not die in the name of Christ, he lived a life of extreme hardship, sacrificing almost everything to his faith and to teach the words of Jesus to just one more human being, and then another, and then another, and then…

I think what I took away most from Yun’s book, the final notable point he makes, is what I quoted at the very beginning of this blog post. No matter who you are, no matter where you serve God, no matter what you do, the details of every action you’ve taken will one day come to judgment. How have you spent your time? How have I? Are we really suffering for our faith? Have we really done all we can to promote the kingdom and to summon Messiah’s return?

Have we really, really repented in humility to God?

Repentance is both the first step to walking in the kingdom of God and the key to continuing in a place of obedience and submission to the Lord. The very first message Jesus proclaimed in His ministry was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt. 4:17). Without a deep experience of repentance in our lives, we will continually struggle with basic sin and never mature as believers.

The Devil doesn’t care if you have served the Lord in the past. What makes him frightened is if you are living for Jesus Christ today, relying on and trusting Him right now, and being willing to obey the leading of the Holy Spirit.

We may look like we belong in the kingdom of God, and we may be successful in tricking other people, but the all-knowing God cannot be fooled. We have to submit to Jesus as Lord and King if we want to dwell in His kingdom. We cannot trick God, whose “solid foundations stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness'” (2 Tim. 2:19).

-Yun/Hattaway, “Repentance,” pp 19-20

prayer-in-the-darkWhat more can I say? Whatever you or I may think of the validity and accuracy of certain details in Yun’s book and in his life story, the message of repentance, turning away from sin and turning toward God; the message of the suffering servant on the cross and the suffering servant of the Master in China and around the world, is the message that rings out the most clearly from the pages of this book.

Being a “Heavenly Man” isn’t a life for the faint of heart or the weak in spirit, but as Paul said:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (ESV)

If you read Brother Yun’s book and take this message to heart, you’ll never look at your path of faith the same way again…at least if you are willing to be honest with yourself and with God.