Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.”
–Genesis 2:18 (NASB)
Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them.
–Acts 21:26 (NASB)
One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.
–Romans 14:5-6 (NASB)
You’re probably wondering what those different portions of scripture have in common. Actually, relative to my experiences last Sunday, quite a lot.
The topic of both the sermon and the Sunday school class at church was Acts 21:15-26. It was a source of a great deal of frustration for me, but I have to be thankful to Pastor Randy for cluing me in about something first.
He reminded his audience of the great accomplishments of the Jewish people and Israel across the centuries, and made sure that we all got the idea that God didn’t do away with the Old Testament (Tanakh), the nation of Israel, and the Jewish people.
He also let us know that, in the debate over whether or not Paul did the right thing by paying the expenses of the four men under a vow at the Temple and offering sacrifices, over half of those historic and modern scholars upon whom Pastor depends for his research strongly believe that not only did Paul make a mistake, but that he sinned by participating in the Temple rites.
Fortunately, Pastor doesn’t agree with that opinion (and neither do I) and in listening to various people conversing after the sermon, I was relieved to hear that most (but not all) of the people around me have the same opinion as Pastor.
But Pastor kept repeating that offering sacrifices doesn’t atone for sins, it never did. This reminded me of time after time during our previous private discussions, when talking about the continuation of Torah observance for the Jewish people including Jewish believers, he kept stressing the same point.
However, while listening to the sermon, I had something of a minor revelation similar to the one that resulted in me writing The Two-Thousand Year Old Christian Mistake.
You see, I agree with Pastor that the sacrifices in and of themselves have no power to atone for sins and to save a human being from the consequences of God’s justice. We are only saved through faith and out of that faith, we obey God. That’s what Paul and every other Jew who sincerely participated in the Temple rituals was doing. Obeying God out of faith.
So why beat up the Torah by saying it doesn’t save when I fully agree that simple, mechanical performance of the mitzvot with no intent or faith behind it is just going through the motions?
Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
–Acts 15:1 (NASB)
This has alway puzzled me because circumcision (that is, the physical act of being circumcised and then observing the Torah commandments) isn’t what saves a person, and these gentlemen from Judea should have known that. Of course, they should have known that.
But that’s not what they meant.
When an Evangelical Christian reads that verse he or she thinks the Jews involved are saying that performing the mitzvot including the sacrifices in the Temple is what saves. But they were never meant to save. They are the conditions of the covenant relationship with God and that relationship in covenant, through faith, is what saves.
Why didn’t I see this before?
The big hang up Christians have with the Torah is because of a misunderstanding of what the folks they call “Judaizers” were saying (Nanos more aptly refers to them as “influencers” since New Testament scholars can’t seem to agree on exactly who these people were. See The Irony of Galatians).
The “influencers” Paul refers to in his epistle to the Galatians and the Jews we hear from in Acts 15:1 weren’t saying that obeying the mitzvot and making the various sacrifices at the Temple would save the Gentile. They were saying that the Gentiles needed to be in a covenant relationship with God in order to be saved.
Especially for non-Jesus-believing Jews, the New Covenant times weren’t even on the horizon. How could they be? From their perspective, Messiah had not yet come. Thus, the Gentiles had no standing before God unless they became proselytes and entered into the Sinai covenant with God as converts to Judaism. Being a God-fearing Gentile might have been a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t a covenant relationship.
But Paul and many of the disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) knew that the New Covenant had been inaugurated with the death and resurrection of the Master, so through faith in Messiah, the Gentiles could be grafted in and benefit from the blessings of that covenant, which had begun to enter the world but had not yet completely arrived.
If you miss the distinction, that it’s being in a covenant relationship with God through faith that saves rather than just the literal behaviors of the conditions of a covenant, you completely misunderstand the Jews advocating for Gentile conversion.
These “Judaizers” or “Influencers” weren’t bad, awful, evil people. They may have had genuine concern for the Gentiles who had attached themselves to the Jewish religious movement of “the Way”. These Jews, some of whom could have been Jesus-believers with an incomplete understanding of the New Covenant blessings upon the Gentiles, may have been authentically puzzled why Paul was treating the Gentiles as if they were equal co-participants, both socially and in covenant, in Jewish religious life. They may have felt that the Gentiles couldn’t participate in covenant blessings without conversion, because they didn’t see any other way to reconcile the Gentiles to God.
Paul understood, but his viewpoint wasn’t always terribly popular with Jewish populations who didn’t apprehend his vision (figuratively and literally).
Once you figure it out, you realize the issue was never that the mitzvot saved, it was Covenant relationship. It always has been and it’s still the issue we struggle to comprehend today. Jews are the focus of almost all of the covenants we see in the Bible including the Sinai and New Covenants. Gentiles are included under a single provision of the Abrahamic covenant and by faith in Jesus, in the blessings of the New Covenant.
And that’s what I got out of last Sunday’s sermon, not that Pastor explained it that way, but by his preaching, I finally made the connection.
Things didn’t go so well in Sunday school. I was determined to make only one statement in class. I could have talked all day long about the Christian traditions that were being imposed on the text resulting in quite a few (in my opinion) erroneous assumptions being made by most of my classmates. One fellow pointblank told me Paul did sin because when Jesus was crucified, the sacrifices ended. I disagreed of course, and gave him a mini-explanation of what the Epistle to the Hebrews was really about, but I knew it was for nothing.
My Sunday school teacher heavily favors the sermons of John MacArthur and it is MacArthur’s opinion that the practice of Judaism by Jesus-believing Jews as we see it in the Book of Acts, was a transitional period between Jewish practice being within the will of God, and it being replaced by the grace of Jesus Christ, effectively extinguishing the “ceremonial laws” in the Torah.
Teacher said it was MacArthur’s opinion that God was being patient and tolerant of the Jesus-believing Jews, including Paul, who continued in devotion to Hashem by davening at the set times of prayer, offering sacrifices in accordance to the commandments, observing Shabbos, keeping kosher, and all of the other portions of the Law that had been “nailed to the cross with Jesus.”
But there’s an apparent contradiction. In Acts, Luke depicts Paul as very pro-Torah, pro-Temple, pro-Jewish people, and pro-Judaism. However, a number of Paul’s letters, principally Galatians, seem to cast Paul in the role of being anti-Torah. That was the foundation for my comment in class when the issue of Romans 14 and the identity of the “weak” and “strong” (basing my opinion on Nanos in The Mystery of Romans) came up.
It was like I was talking in a language no one in the room understood. I saw quite a few blank stares, like no one could figure out what the heck I was talking about. One fellow, who is quite intelligent and well-read (and who holds a highly traditional Evangelical Christian view on the Bible) referenced Romans 14:5-6 to explain that it was (at that time) OK to either observe the Law or not observe the Law as long as it was for the sake of the Lord.
In other words, no one even understood my question and so they had no idea they had completely missed my point.
I let it go rather than continue to be a source of confusion and aggravation and after all, teacher said this was a lesson about unity.
Unity. That totally baffled me until I realized he meant Paul agreed to undergo the Temple ritual and humble himself to James and the Elders in Jerusalem as kind of “going along to get along.” They saw Paul as compromising in order to keep the peace, rather than standing his ground about the lack of validity in Jewish tradition, custom, and observance.
There was no way anyone in the classroom could have possibly imagined that Paul might have wanted to offer sacrifices and looked forward to participating in the Temple ritual, especially during the Holy Festival of Shavuot (although they all acknowledged why Paul should have totally been jazzed about Pentecost…the Acts 2 Pentecost, not the Greek word for the Jewish moed).
I spent the rest of the class time in a forced silence, so I was in a “terrific” mood when I left church and made the ten or fifteen minute drive back home.
When I walked in the kitchen trolling for lunch, my wife made the mistake of asking me how church went, and I made the mistake of telling her.
Then she reminded me of her role according to God:
And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man is alone; I shall make him a helpmate opposite him.”
–Beresheet (Genesis) 2:18
The translation I found at Chabad.org is a bit different than you’ll find in most Christian Bibles, and as I understand it, implies that God created woman to oppose her husband under certain circumstances.
Women can often cut through the fog that surrounds a man’s mind and get to the core of a matter, whether we like it or not.
My wife told me I was being arrogant if I thought I was going to change anyone’s mind, especially if that was any part of the reason I was going to church.
I got mad at first, but spending some time in the backyard pulling weeds gave me time to think.
I have been arrogant. I’ve walked into someone else’s religious and social space with the assumption that I had anything to offer them; that I had anything they wanted at all.
As it turns out, I have nothing to offer and certainly nothing anyone at church wants to hear or learn. I may think what I’m learning and how I understand the Bible is worthwhile and illuminating, but obviously I’m in a world of people who don’t see things like I do.
I kind of thought that was the point, but I’m realizing I’ve been wrong. I have no right to impose my point of view or to disagree with the people who are running the show at church. It’s their church. I’m just a glorified guest. I’m not a member and I couldn’t become a member with my current perspectives and attitudes.
My Sunday school teacher’s emphasis on unity is really the Church’s (big “C”) attitude about community. People must agree with each other for the sake of peace and unity because Christians believe certain things.
Whenever I make some sort of theological statement that conflicts with how my wife sees her convictions, she tells me “what Jews believe,” which largely comes from the local Chabad Rabbi. He tells her what Jews believe and helps orient her to a Jewish religious perspective (not that she in any way is Orthodox). So I should have realized there are certain things Christians believe too, and making some sort of theological statement that conflicts with how people in Sunday school see their convictions elicits the same response from them as I get from my spouse.
I have been arrogant, and naive, and just plain stupid.
I feel like an idiot and I feel ashamed.
I also have to question why I’m going to church, any church. In his book Tent of David, Boaz Michael emphasized that the “Messianic Gentile” must have the right attitude, one of humility and fellowship, when returning to (or staying in) church and being a sort of “light to the nations…uh, Christians.”
But there’s a light you shine to help people see the path, and then there’s the really bright, annoying light you shine in people’s faces until they yell at you to turn the darn thing off.
If the “Tent of David” were inflatable, then I’d be guilty of letting at least some of the air out. I certainly feel deflated.
The Internet went out at my home on Sunday afternoon (long story) so I wasn’t able to write this blog post when my emotions were running high. That’s a good thing. I’ve had a day or so to mull things over and to cool off.
I know I disagree with most (or all) of the people at church about many things, and I have good reasons (whether anyone agrees with those reasons or not) why I believe what I do, but the people around me every Sunday morning are under no obligation whatsoever to care what I think and feel, particularly when it flies in the face of their Biblical and world view.
So I’ve got one of three options as I see it: Do what I’m doing now and continue to be an irritant not to mention desecrating the name of God, continue to go to church while keeping my big mouth shut and not participating in discussions, or leaving church and let bygones be bygones.
Frankly, in the eighteen months or so I’ve been going, I may have contributed a few positive things in church, but for the most part, no one knows what to do with me, or if they’ve made up their minds (and some have), they know they want nothing to do with me.
I’ve ruined more relationships, both face-to-face and online, by spewing my opinions and putting people off.
I’ve been letting the air out of David’s Tent or maybe I’ve been taking tools of mass destruction to it. I was supposed to be inflating it, constructing it, building it up, but now the thing is beginning to collapse around my ears. Maybe it should collapse around my mouth.
No, it’s not my mouth, it’s my attitude. I just got so caught up in what I know, that I forgot about what’s most important.
Any dispute which is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately endure, and one which is not for the sake of Heaven will not ultimately endure.
-Pirkei Avot 5:20