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64 Days and 41,000 Paths to Follow

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”

Acts 4:13-20 (ESV)

Solemnly charged not to speak in Yeshua’s (Jesus’s) name, the apostles replied, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

The Sanhedrin could argue that they were God’s ordained authority on earth, therefore disobedience to them was disobedience to God. It was a difficult contradiction, and one faced by others in Jewish history. Decisions the legislators adopted by majority consensus were also adopted as the ruling in heaven. (see b.Bava Meitza 59a-b)

What does one do when God-ordained institutional authority rules in contradiction with the will of God? The Master had already prepared his disciples for just such a circumstance. He had foreseen the way things would go and had assured His disciples that they would possess “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” and the right to make legal determinations of binding and loosing. (Matthew 16:19) As apostles of Yeshua, the twelve disciples represented the authority of the throne of David. That important legal power gave Simon Peter and the Twelve the right to overrule the Sanhedrin if necessary.

-from Torah Club, , Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
Torah Portion Lech Lecha (“Go Forth”) (pg 78)
Commentary on Acts 2:42-4:31
Produced by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

It’s all fine and well for Jesus to assure “His disciples that they would possess ‘the keys to the kingdom of heaven’ and the right to make legal determinations of binding and loosing,” but what about us? The apostles represented a direct link to the Messiah, since they had been taught by him and the giving of the Holy Spirit to them, in a very public visible and physical demonstration, was only days or weeks old. While the Sanhedrin could attempt to refute and even defy their “Messianic authority,” a good many witnesses in Jerusalem were more than convinced, and correctly so. Not only that, but there could have been no doubt in the minds of Peter, John, and the rest of the apostles, that they were in the right. Thus they had not only the authority, but the confidence and certainty of mind to be able to stand up in defiance of an order of Israel’s authentic and authoritative legal court system.

But how does D. Thomas Lancaster’s commentary on the legal authority of the apostles to defy the legal authority of the Sanhedrin affect us? That is, who holds “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” today?

You might say, “the church,” but which one? How many denominations of the Christian church currently exist?

According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there are approximately 41,000 Christian denominations and organizations in the world. This statistic takes into consideration cultural distinctions of denominations in different countries, so there is overlapping of many denominations.

-quoted from “Christianity Today – General Statistics and Facts of Christianity”
christianity.about.com

Oh my!

That’s a lot of denominations, and they don’t take into account a lot of the more fringy or cult-like groups who also claim some sort of authority to interpret scripture over their flocks in a legal manner.

And then there’s the Internet. As we’ve seen in a seemingly endless stream of religious blogs and their associated comments, there is a plethora of groups and individuals who claim to collectively or personally possess “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” and the right to defy the more established Christian authorities.

I suppose we could split the difference 41,000 (legitimate) ways within the body of Christianity and say that each church possesses a set of keys as applied to their own communities, and that their authority, as it were, is limited to the confines of said-communities, but that’s not really satisfactory. There are not 41,000 Gods and there are not 41,000 Christs, and there are not 41,000 Holy Spirits. God is One. While I believe, to a certain degree, that how the Bible principles are applied may vary and even evolve over the centuries in order to serve the needs of each generation, there is still an objective God; a God unto Himself, the One God with One Mind, and One Spirit, who cannot be subdivided in any manner, even though we may want and even need Him to do so for the sake of our own priorities.

So who inherited the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” or were they simply lost over the course of time?

That’s the problem we are having today. Look at the struggles the “early church” had in Jerusalem. They never became a major power in the Jewish hierarchy. They remained a small Jewish sect operating within the larger collection of valid Judaisms of the late Second Temple period and to some small degree, beyond the destruction of the Temple (but not very much farther). If there was one authentic Messianic (Christian) Jewish authority with the living apostles of Christ among the many Judaisms, when the Jews either surrendered Christianity to the nations or were “kicked out” of the assembly of the Messiah by the Gentiles, what happened to that authentic authority? Was it divided and subdivided, and subdivided again, endlessly across history, like a single-celled organism replicating, evolving, developing to form some vast living mass that is associated but not particularly unified? Is that authority shared among 41,000 living “cells” in what is (loosely) collective Christianity today?

Who currently has the right to make legal decisions that are binding both on earth and in Heaven and to defy all of the others who claim authority over the “Christian church?”

Oh, it gets worse.

It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, (Lit., ‘all the arguments in the world’) but they did not accept them. Said he to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm, four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’ Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’ (Deut. 30:12) What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline. (Ex. 23:2 though the story is told in a legendary form, this is a remarkable assertion of the independence of human reasoning)

R. Nathan met Elijah (It was believed that Elijah, who had never died, often appeared to the Rabbis) and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’

Baba Mezi’a 59b

The Torah Club commentary, from which I quoted above, refers to this Talmudic story, and it is believed in observant Judaism, that the right of the Rabbis to interpret and apply halakhah in an authoritative manner derives from this passage as attached to Deuteronomy 30:12 (Stone Edition Chumash):

It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, “Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?”

My Christian reading audience is probably asking why any of this matters, since the Jews do not have authority to interpret scriptures for Christians, and especially not to establish halakhah for us. That’s a good question and you’re right. We don’t expect any of the Talmudic rulings to have any sort of impact, let alone authority, over any of the 41,000 Christian denominations (and their variants, spin-offs, or edge case adaptations) today.

But what about Jews who profess Jesus Christ as the Jewish Messiah King, not as members of a Christian church, but as disciples of Yeshuah HaMashiach (Jesus the Christ) within a wholly Jewish ethnic, cultural, and halakhic religious and lifestyle context? What about Messianic Judaism?

When G-d intrusted Israel with the Torah, He commanded them to appoint leaders to interpret the Torah and to judge whether or not the people had broken the Torah. Inherent in this process is the development of case law, history, tradition of the Jewish people which establishes the precedence that fleshes out the full meaning and implications of each of the commandments. This body of tradition was created by the Jewish people at the commandment of G-d…The Torah invests the divine authority in the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people (this is in the Deuteronomy ch. 17), where their rulings are called…”a word of Torah”. Any Israelite presumptuous enough to reject the rulings of the judges of Israel was cut off from his people, the same punishment as for someone who rejected the written Torah. How much more presumptuous is it for a gentile to cast off entire body of Jewish tradition and claim the right to act as the judge and definer of the Torah?

-Boaz Michael
President and Founder of First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Speaking at the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) July 2012 conference in Baltimore, Maryland
as quoted by Gene Shlomovich on his blog
Daily Minyan

We see that in some corners of Messianic Judaism (as I define it), there is a serious devotion to the authority of the Jewish people to define themselves as Jews and to determine halakhah for themselves based on the authority of the sages. This rather flies in the face of we non-Jewish Christians but is a particular “thorn in the side” of some of those non-Jews who have either directly (by attending authentic Messianic Jewish congregations) or tangentially (through an affiliation with some form of the Hebrew Roots movement) attached themselves to a (more or less) “Jewish” viewpoint on the New Testament scriptures, Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and God as the God of Israel.

I’ll tell you right now that I don’t know what all this means and that I don’t have the answers to the questions I’m asking. Because of this, some people accuse me of not knowing if I’m coming or going, and I suppose that is a valid concern from an outside observer’s point of view. On the other hand, there are others who feel exactly the same way about the impact and the consequences of a real, authentic, and transparent life of faith and trust in God as we attempt to grasp the meaning of the Bible across the history of the Jewish people and the world.

The Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (UJRC) has established a written Standards of Observance (PDF) document that is intended to guide its member synagogues in the appropriate halakhic rulings as adapted for Messianic Jews, but it is only one body and cannot possibly represent all Jews who profess Yeshua as Messiah everywhere. It also, by necessity, defines a varying level of halakhic response for the non-Jewish disciples who come under the MJRC’s authority, but again, the scope if such authority is limited. These standards do not solve the problem or answer the questions I’ve been posing in today’s meditation however, but only because, like the multitude of Christian churches that exist today, it can’t, at least not outside its own community. We don’t have a universal legal and theological interpretation of scripture where “one size fits all.”

We long for the coming of Messiah. Christians desperately await the return of the King in all his glory. We have many reasons for doing so but one of the reasons I seek him and his presence is to help me understand who indeed on earth holds the “keys to the kingdom,” if anyone. Many claim to hold them or at least know the path on which to travel to find them. Many would-be “Messiahs,” religious leaders, pundits, and self-taught scholars of one stripe or another, profess to know “the truth.” But who are we to believe except God Himself, but how we understand God through the Bible and even through the Spirit, is split at least 41,000 ways, from a Christian perspective.

How am I to choose among 41,000 paths, and probably more if I factor in my own fascination with Judaism, as applied to my Christian faith? I can’t. I can only choose one of the myriad ways as they stand before me and start walking, trusting that God will not allow me to travel the wrong path, nor select a guide made out of my ego, my biases (at least not too severely), or my weaknesses, but only His Son, and the lamp of the throne of David.

May he and I walk together discovering the truth of his existence and my own. May God grant you this gift as well, for this may be all we can do until Messiah returns to rule in Jerusalem, and reveals clearly the One God and the One Way from His Temple.

Blessed is Hashem from Zion, He Who dwells in Jerusalem. Halleluyah!

Psalm 135:21 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

For from Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.

Micah 4:2 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

64 days from now, on my path, chosen from among 41,000 paths, (and probably more) where will I find myself?

 

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Community Snapshot: Lessons from Acts 2:42-4:31

Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.

Acts 3:1 (ESV)

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.”

Acts 10:1-3 (ESV)

The disciples devoted themselves to “the prayers.” “Luke’s reference to ‘prayers’ rather than to prayer per se here may indicate observance of regular prayer times in the Temple – as well as the community’s own prayers.” (see Le Cornu and Shulam, “A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Acts: Acts 1-15, 147.”) Most English versions obscure the meaning by not transmitting the definite article. The Greek says that they devoted themselves to “the prayers (tais proseuchais).”

“The prayers” should be understood in keeping with the common liturgical, daily prayers of Judaism, the synagogue, and the Temple. Six verses later, Luke depicts Simon Peter and John “going up to the temple at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer” (Acts 3:1).

This does not mean that early believers prayed out of a Siddur. Prayer books did not yet exist. It only implies that they prayed in concert with other Jewish people, following the same forms, conventions, modes, and times of prayer as the rest of the Jewish world. Their faith in Yeshua (Jesus) did not change their mode of worship. Their faith made their worship more intense and ardent.

Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Lech Lecha (“Go forth”) (pg 63)
Commentary on Acts 2:42-4:31

In my previous meditation about the Torah Club commentary on Acts, I tried to explain a couple of things. Based on Acts 2, I illustrated that those who were at the Shavuot (Pentecost) festival, and the 3,000 who received the Holy Spirit in Christ’s name, were all Jewish. Coupling what we read in Acts 2 with this week’s study of Acts 2:42-4:31, we can see that the very early days of “Christianity” with Peter and John in Jerusalem involved a completely Jewish religious community. In fact, this portion of Acts is devoted to the description of the early Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah in the weeks and months after his ascension.

I’m choosing to focus on that aspect of Jewish community involving “the prayers” for a couple of reasons. One is the obvious point that nothing about the practice of the Jewish disciples changed in the slightest because they were disciples of the Jewish Jesus. They still observed “the prayers” at the set times for prayer. They prayed together with other Jews, both disciples of the Master and any others who had gathered together, seemingly in the part of the Jerusalem Temple known as Solomon’s Portico.

However, you will notice that I again insert something from Acts 10 about the Roman Centurion Cornelius, the God-fearer, who at the beginning of that chapter, had not yet received the Christ; the Messiah, as Lord and Savior. And yet, he was praying at the ninth hour which was “the hour of prayer,” just as the Jews did, including Peter and John.

I also said in my previous missive that the non-Jewish God-fearers and later, the non-Jewish disciples of Jesus indeed took on some (or many) of the Jewish religious practices in order to imitate their mentors and in fact, at that point in history, the “Jewish model” for worshiping God was the only model available. This didn’t make Cornelius or any of the Gentile disciples suddenly Jewish or automatically obligated to a full Jewish lifestyle (otherwise, Paul wouldn’t have thrown such a “temper tantrum” in Galatians 5:1-5). However, it does mean that “Christian” worship looked a lot more Jewish, even after the first non-Jews began to be admitted as disciples, than we could ever imagine it being today.

I suppose that I’ll have a lot more material on Cornelius and the first non-Jewish “Christians” when I actually arrive at the Torah Club’s commentary on Acts 10 (which won’t happen for another six weeks or so) but I want to point out, for those of you reading this who may not already know, the discipleship under Jesus Christ for the early Jewish and Gentile believers did not entail some abrupt demarcation from what otherwise was considered “normal” Jewish religious practice. As D. Thomas Lancaster points out in this week’s study (pp. 61-62):

Notice that each of the four devotions (The Apostles’ Teaching, Fellowship, Breaking of Bread, and the Prayers) are hallmarks of Jewish practice. The new community that formed around the disciples of Yeshua did not adopt new customs or innovations that could be considered particularly Christian and distinct from Judaism. Instead, they devoted themselves to the same pursuits that might characterize any Jewish faith community. Today’s churches and communities of faith would look more like messianic synagogues if we committed ourselves to the four devotions of study, community, hospitality, and liturgy.

That recalls a question I asked not too long ago. Do Christians Practice Judaism? As we understand the concepts today, the answer must be “no.” However, as the “Messianic faith” began as a wholly Jewish expression of discipleship under the Master, what were the very first Gentiles doing when they were brought into discipleship with the Jews? For that matter, what did Cornelius think he was doing when he, as a God-fearer, prayed at the ninth hour and (presumably, though we can’t know for sure) gathered with the Jews in synagogue on Shabbat? Practicing Judaism?

Well, probably not, anymore than a modern-day Noahide could be said to be practicing Judaism by davening with Jews in a synagogue on Shabbat. But is the relationship between a Noahide and a Jew in the 21st century the same as that of a “Messianic” Jew and non-Jew in the mid-1st century? Noahides generally see themselves as bound by the covenant of Noah (see Genesis 9), while Jews claim the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and New Covenants, so strictly speaking, they are unlike members of God’s community, attached to God by different covenants.

I’ve said before that I believe we Christians have a relationship with God due to certain blessings included in the Abrahamic and New Covenants but that we are not attached to all of the same conditions within those covenants. Further, it is my belief (because there’s no evidence directly involving non-Jews) that we are not recipients of any blessings from the Mosaic covenant, which more than any of the other covenants, specifically identifies the Jewish people as a unique covenant people, even within the Messianic community of the 1st century and of the budding Messianic Jewish community of the 21st century.

But let’s wind back to the very early chapters of Acts again and take a look at the community as it existed after that first fateful Shavuot when the Spirit was given.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Acts 2:42-47 (ESV)

Here we see some of what Lancaster called “the devotions,” namely teaching/studying and fellowship through breaking of bread (which is just as it sounds, eating together, rather than some special sacrament). This passage is also sometimes referred to as “Christian Communism,” since everyone “re-distributed wealth” so that everyone shared everything. This brings up a point I want to make, not only about this passage but about the larger issue of community.

There are some who would isolate this part of the second chapter of Acts and say it’s the only way a Christian community should be run, and if any other Christians are “hoarding” material wealth for themselves through private ownership of a car, house, and so on, they are in violation of their Christian faith.

But we’re only talking about five verses in a single chapter of the Bible. Who develops an entire theology and Christian lifestyle based on a tiny handful of verses taken out of context?

Actually, quite a lot of people. I tend to think of Christians and Christian groups who insist on cherry picking verses to fit some arcane theology as “on the fringe” and I hope they are indeed in the minority, because it’s a dangerous practice. Focusing on just little bits and pieces of the Bible in an attempt to justify a “pet theology” and then to “sell” it to a wider audience as some form of “scholarship” is not only dishonest but potentially misleading to people who may actually believe it for lack of any better insights on their part.

Let’s take another example from Lancaster’s commentary. He defines the early Jewish Messianic community in terms of the larger context of 1st century Judaism in Jerusalem and Roman occupied Palestine. Let’s keep in mind that there was no one, monolithic Judaism then, anymore than there is one now (that goes for Christianity too, by the way). There were differing sects of Judaism and the sect that became known as “the Way” was what we see as the early Jewish disciples of Jesus in the beginning chapters of Acts. They were Jewish. They behaved in a way that was considered acceptable relative to Jewish religious and lifestyle practices. Except for their insistence that the man from Nazareth named Yeshua was indeed the Messiah, and that he was unjustly executed and three days later, rose from the dead, their Jewish lives and teachings wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow from any other Jew in the Holy Land.

Can we take a “snapshot” of their lives as we see them lived out in Acts 2 and 3 and say that’s how we Christians should live today? Is it any more valid to say that than to say that we must live a Christian lifestyle that exactly mirrors Acts 2:42-47? Probably not. It fails to take a great deal into consideration.

If the 1st century Jewish disciples of Jesus lived a lifestyle that was completely consistent with their Jewish peers and their surrounding Jewish culture, does that translate into a bunch of non-Jewish Christians in the 21st century doing the same thing? Remember, for the most part, Peter, John, and the rest of the disciples didn’t appear particularly unusual as they prayed at the ninth our in Solomon’s Portico. They didn’t appear particularly unusual as they met together to study the teachings of their Master. They didn’t appear particularly unusual when they met together for communal meals. Lots and lots of different groups of Jewish disciples of one Rabbi or another behaved in very similar ways.

But that wouldn’t necessarily translate to Christians twenty centuries later any more than it would translate to modern Jews. Our situations have changed drastically and on top of that, we don’t have a complete picture of what the early Messianic Jewish communities looked like. We can extrapolate based on whatever knowledge we possess of wider Jewish practices in the late Second Temple era, but we have even less knowledge of “normal” Christian practices among the newly minted Gentile disciples post-Acts 10. How could we ever figure out, assuming our goal was to imitate some portion of 1st century worship behaviors, how to replicate what that community (or those communities if we assume that once early non-Jewish churches were founded, their practices began to vary from those of the Jewish disciples in the synagogues) did way back in the first weeks, months, and years after the ascension of Jesus?

We can’t, at least not to a high degree of reliability and detail. What we can do is take what we understand of some of the general principles we see lived out and match them up with some of Christ’s teachings within a larger Biblical context and figure out some foundational points with which to connect.

Meeting together? Don’t we do that now? Don’t we have churches? Don’t we have home Bible studies? Don’t we serve food and eat together? Don’t we study together? Don’t we pray together?

Didn’t I just cover Lancaster’s four devotions in the previous paragraph?

Nothing in what we’ve seen in the first chapters of Acts necessarily tells us that the Gentile disciples (who didn’t exist during that time frame) where to behave exactly like their Jewish counterparts. It does tell us that the early Jewish disciples behaved very consistently with the Jewish religious and cultural practices in which they lived. Those Jews believed Jesus Christ was the Messiah and yet there was nothing at all to say that they ever stopped being Jews, stopped making sacrifices at the Temple, stopped celebrating the traditional festivals, stopped keeping kosher, stopped observing the Shabbat, stopped…you know what I’m getting at.

In the days when the Second Temple still stood and after the ascension of Christ, there was nothing to show us that the so-called “Jewish Christians” stopped being Jewish and started being “Christian” as we understand the term today.

But while I’m content to table what the later (from an Acts 3 point of view) Gentile disciples were supposed to do within what appears to be a wholly Jewish religious arena (I know I just left this question hanging, but I’ll pick it up again in subsequent studies of Acts via Torah Club), can we say that if the ancient Jewish disciples of the Master lived completely Jewish lifestyles and those lifestyles were totally consistent with their discipleship under Jesus Christ, could the same be true for the modern Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah?

Most of my regular readers (the ones who typically comment, anyway), already know that answer. But some of you, especially if you’re just surfing in here, may be a bit surprised. Food for thought.

Noah, Moses, and Peter: Lessons from Acts 2

Receiving the SpiritFor the disciples of the Master, Shavuot already carried extra significance as the fiftieth day since His resurrection. He was the first fruits of the resurrection. The disciples and followers of Yeshua were themselves the first fruits of His labor. On Shavuot, they added 3,000 souls to their number and the great harvest of men began.

The story of Acts 2 depicts the early disciples of Yeshua still engaged in the biblical calendar, keeping the LORD’s appointed times as prescribed by the Torah of Moses. Unlike later Christian tradition which discarded the biblical calendar with its weekly Sabbaths and holy days, the early disciples remained steadfastly Torah observant, even after the resurrection of our Master.

Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
Torah Portion Noach (Noah) (pg 30)
Commentary on Acts 2:1-41

“Chronicles of the Apostles” takes students on a year-long study of the book of Acts with Messianic commentary and Jewish insights into the Epistles.

Follow the lives and adventures of the apostles beyond the book of Acts and into the lost chapter of church history. Study Jewish sources, Church fathers, and Christian history to reveal the untold story of the disciples into the second century.

Promotional description of
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

All of them were gathered with one heart.

Ma’asei HaShlichim 2:1

So begins my year-long study of the Apostolic writings from Acts and other sources, which runs in parallel with the annual Jewish Torah reading cycle. I say “parallel” rather than a more closely connected link because, although this study in Torah Club is to be read for the Torah Portion Noach (Noah), they have little, if anything to do with each other. Noach doesn’t speak of Shavuot or the giving of the Torah at all, which are events that occur much later in the Torah narrative. And yet perhaps this is a good thing.

In traditional Christian Bible studies, the New Testament is given overwhelming preference with maybe a slight nod to the Old Testament, but almost certainly not the Torah (the Five Books of Moses). In the Hebrew Roots movement, where I have spent most of my history as a believer worshiping God and studying the Word, the Torah is given the greater preference, even though we are followers and disciples of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. I think it’s good to try to even the scales, so to speak, and give equal time to all of the different portions of the Bible.

A traditional Jewish Torah reading will present from the Torah and the Prophets. Few synagogues also offer the opportunity to read the Psalm for the week, but each Torah Portion has a corresponding Psalm (Psalm 29 in the case of Noah). First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) has also created a schedule of Gospel readings that map to the readings of the Torah, but the later portions of the Apostolic scriptures are largely ignored, at least formally.

In my “previous life” as a teacher in my former “One Law” (part of Hebrew Roots) congregation, I created an alternating cycle where for one year, Matthew through Acts was read along with the Torah cycle, and the next year, Romans through Revelation was read. So in two years, the congregation would go through the Torah twice, through the traditional readings of the Prophets and the Psalms twice, and through the entire New Testament. Imagine how much you would absorb after a decade of repeatedly reading and hearing read the vast majority of the Bible.

But reading and hearing read is one thing (or two things) and studying is something else. Here, FFOZ and D. Thomas Lancaster offers the Torah Club student (or class, since this material is designed to be used in a small group study) the opportunity to “dig deeper” into the scriptures and to learn how familiar passages in Acts are married back to the Torah, as well as to the Prophets, other portions of the New Testament, and as the study progresses through the annual cycle, to extra-Biblical learned texts as well.

Today, I am learning about the Acts of the early Jewish Apostles, This lesson is about the 3,000 Jews, many probably from the diaspora, who were in Jerusalem for the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), which is held in the late Spring, and who came to receive the Spirit of the Lord and to come to faith in Jesus (Yeshua), the Jewish Messiah, the Son of the God of Israel, the redeemer of Israel and the world.

The disciples were all “filled with the Holy Spirit.” The Torah uses the same terminology to describe the endowment of God’s Spirit on Joshua, Caleb, Bezalel, and Oholiab. In those examples, the Torah likens a human being to a vessel. God’s spirit can fill a human being like water can fill a jar.

from “Chronicles”
Torah Portion Noah (pg 32)

And what is this supposed to teach me? I’m reminded of something I said just recently:

I’m still not sure of what the process is where I’m supposed to be emptied now and filled later, but in trying to live out that process in writing and in person, I prefer to think of myself as taking “the higher road less traveled”

But in reading Lancaster’s study of Acts 2 and the giving of the Spirit, I’m also reminded of this:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

1 Corinthians 4:7-11 (ESV)

So aren’t we all fragile jars of clay containing an unimaginably valuable treasure of the Holy Spirit of God, through our Master and Messiah Jesus Christ?

Acts 2 describes the giving of the Spirit to thousands of new Jewish disciples of the Messiah on the day of Shavuot. Is it too soon to bring in the idea that we among the nations were also to receive the Spirit?

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

Acts 10:44-48 (ESV)

Perhaps I can also extend the lesson and the metaphor of “jars of clay” to include Gentile God-fearers like Cornelius and his transition into what was later known as Christianity through accepting discipleship under Jesus Christ…and also bring Noah into the lesson.

I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Genesis 9:11-17 (ESV)

As we saw in Acts 10, Peter, the Jewish Apostle, was astonished to discover that the Spirit of God would also come upon the non-Jew who accepted Christ, just as it came upon the Jews during his experience of the events recorded in Acts 2. It had never occurred to him before that such a thing was even possible. What a wonderful God who can also save the children of the nations as well as the Children of Israel.

But earlier in the chapter, we learn some things about Cornelius as he was before becoming a disciple of Jesus:

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.

“Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.”

Acts 10:1-2, 22 (ESV)

The Roman Centurion Cornelius and his non-Jewish household were known as “God-fearers,” non-Jews who had come to the realization that the God of Israel was the God, the One and only, the Creator. In that realization, they came to faith, abandoned the pagan idols of Rome, and gave homage to God only. Often, non-Jewish God-fearers would worship in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Many took on some of the other Jewish religious practices of the day, including the daily prayers, and even, to a degree, a Kosher observance (for Peter to break bread in Cornelius’s house, this would have to be true in his case).

But would a Gentile simply walk into a Second Temple era synagogue on Shabbat and inform the Rabbi and other Jews that he intended to worship the Israelite God with them? How was this done and under what status would a Gentile appropriately do such a thing?

Recall Genesis 9 and the covenant God made with Noah and all of his descendents which, by definition, includes all of humanity.

The concept of the Noahide was not formalized, as we understand it today, until the Talmudic era, many centuries after Cornelius and Peter walked the earth. However, the covenant of Noah would have been well-known among the Jews and it’s not beyond reason to believe that a man as devoted to God as Cornelius would have learned or been taught that anyone from among the nations stands before God as subject to the covenant with Noah. Perhaps, though not called or even thought of as “Noahides,” many of the Gentiles who would later receive the Spirit and be baptized by water in Christ’s name, were nevertheless, viewed in such a manner, as God-fearing men and women who had heard the distant words of God to Noah at Ararat, and thus, believed.

To borrow more from Lancaster’s Torah Club lesson (pg 47), maybe we can understand the rite of baptism, especially as it related to the God-fearers, just a little better:

Based on this reading, Lichtenstein argues that the formula (see Acts 2:38) is not a baptismal confession but a statement of purpose. The disciples were to immerse people for the sake of declaring their faith in His messianic identity. Their immersion for His sake signified their entrance into His school of disciples and their allegiance to Him.

The apostles believed that the immersion in His name entailed a mystical union with Him, with His suffering, His death, and His resurrection. (see Romans 6:1-13 and 1 Corinthians 4:7-11)

This interpretation of the meaning of baptismal immersion signifies the crossing of a barrier for the non-Jewish adherents to the God of Israel, from God-fearers and possessors of the covenant of Noah, to disciples and people granted entrance to much greater covenant blessings under Messiah Yeshua.

In the events of Acts 2 and during the festival of Shavuot, every Jew present would be constantly reminded of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, of the awesome voice of God thundering from the smoke and fire, of the top of the mountain, smoldering in unspeakable tongues of flame. When the Spirit of God manifested as “tongues of fire” and rested upon the disciples of Moshiach at Solomon’s Portico, and they spoke in the many tongues of men and the languages of the nations, how much more significant was that Shavuot and all those that followed in their annual procession, to the older and newly made disciples? And when Peter saw that even the Hebrew FireGentiles could receive the Spirit, the greater mysteries of God’s work among all the world, linking Noah, to Moses, to Jesus, unfolded like an infinitely wide cloth, spilling amazing treasures across history, from Creation and into the future that even we now inhabit.

Admittedly, I’ve far exceeded the content of this part of volume 6 of the Torah Club in this “meditation,” (though I’ve included only a tiny fraction of what the over 20 pages of lesson notes – not to mention the accompanying audio CD – for this single teaching have to offer) but once I start learning, the connections to many other sparks of God’s wisdom were inevitable. If you continue to follow me in these studies or to embark on your own through the Torah Club, this will happen to you as well. Believe me, if you encounter the wealth of information in just this single study, it will illustrate to you that what you thought you knew about the events of Acts 2 only scratches the surface of what is actually there.

As humble and empty jars of clay, in seeking God and studying His Word, we desire to become filled with His Spirit and His Wisdom, every day, on each encounter with Him, and across all of our years.

…and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

Luke 24:47 (ESV)

71 Days: Wrestling with Trust

The realization that our own strength may be inadequate should never cause us to sink back into inertia. Never refrain from a good endeavor because the difficulties involved seem insurmountable. Keep in mind that we have a mighty Helper in the Almighty in all our good endeavors. Let us do our share; the Almighty will do the rest.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Today’s Daily Lift #612”
Aish.com

May these words that I have prayed before God be close to God day and night, that He may do justice for His servant and for His people Israel, the needs of each day on that day.

-Siddur

When people lift heavy loads, they are likely to develop severe back pain. When they realize that they are overtaxing their bodies, they discontinue this practice and from then on will lift only as much as their bodies can safely bear.

While we can easily determine our body’s stress capacity, our psychological and emotional stress tolerance is not so readily measurable. Yet, if we exceed that stress level, symptoms of discomfort and dysfunction are just as apt to occur as when the body’s level is exceeded. How is one to determine one’s safe emotional and psychological stress level?

What could be simpler than following the instruction book provided by the Manufacturer?

During the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert, the manna was provided in portions just sufficient for one day, and any excess rotted away.

As for what they would eat the next day, the Israelites had been assured that there would be fresh manna the following day. Our appropriate stress tolerance is to be concerned for just one day – twenty-four hours. If we take on more than that, we may be overburdening the system. In our economy, lacking the miraculous manna and having the ability to save for the future, there may be justification for putting something aside for a rainy day. However, we often take on worries far in advance, about things that we are powerless to alter or to prepare for today. Such futile worry is harmful to a person.

Today I shall…

try to concentrate on my present needs and avoid worrying about things that are not within my capacity to change.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Cheshvan 4”
Aish.com

Just in case you ever wonder why I favor Jewish religious and spiritual sources over traditional Christian books and articles, what you’ve just read from Rabbis Pliskin and Twersky should be exceptionally familiar to anyone who calls themselves a follower of Jesus, and certainly to even the most casual reader of the Gospels.

And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Luke 12:22-34 (ESV)

But knowing is easier than doing, in my case because I was recently reminded how scary some churches and some Pastors can be.

I can just “feel” Jesus admonishing me every time I write one of these “meditations,” particularly in the “Days” series. “Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch,” he might say if he chose to use the yiddish term. “All you do is kvetch. When are you going to do?”

Good question.

But according to my previous “day” (73 Days, to be exact), I may already be “doing” something. Of course that could also be an excuse, “blaming” being intermarried for the fact that I don’t have a congregational affiliation. Even my wife, who only goes to shul once in a blue moon anymore, has an “affiliation” with both the Chabad and the Reform-Conservative synagogues in town. My only affiliation with them, as it were, is in paying for the annual memberships (yes, my name is on them along with my wife’s).

While a life of faith may contain many mysteries, it is primarily supposed to be a relationship of joy and wonder, not puzzlement and conundrum.

Bereishit is a cheerful sedra, even though its ending is not all that pleasant. Noach has the Flood, but the week ends on a happy note with the birth of our father Avraham. The really joyous week is that of parshat Lech L’cha. We live every day of the week with Avraham, the first to dedicate his very life to spreading G-dliness in the world. And Avraham bequeathed his self-sacrifice as an inheritance to all Jews. (See Tanya Ch. 18; Elul 21.)

“Today’s Day”
Monday, Cheshvan 3, 5704
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

See what I mean?

On the other hand, putting the whole “church thing” to one side for the moment, there’s also this:

Torah-study every day is crucial to life itself. This applies not only to the soul of the one studying but also to the souls of his family. For then (through Torah-study), the atmosphere of the home becomes an atmosphere of Torah and piety.

“Today’s Day”
Tuesday, Cheshvan 4, 5704
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

On Thursday afternoon, volume 6 of the Torah Club (which you’ll recall, I discussed quite recently) arrived at my home:

“Chronicles of the Apostles” takes students on a year-long study of the book of Acts with Messianic commentary and Jewish insights into the Epistles.

Follow the lives and adventures of the apostles beyond the book of Acts and into the lost chapter of church history. Study Jewish sources, Church fathers, and Christian history to reveal the untold story of the disciples into the second century.

This all new Torah Club Volume Six (2011–12) goes beyond the book Acts and opens the lost chapter of Messianic Jewish and Christian history.

In a Bible study that reads like an epic novel, Chronicles of the Apostles harmonizes Josephus, rabbinic lore, and apostolic legends to tell the story of the martyrdom of Peter, the work of Thomas, the flight to Pella, the fall of Jerusalem, John’s exile on Patmos, the Roman persecutions, the second generation of disciples, the transitions from Sabbath to Sunday and from apostolic Judaism to Christianity. Rewind your religion and discover the truth about our Jewish roots.

Since both Genesis and Noah have already been read, I’ll need to do a bit of catch up work in my “Torah Club” reading and audio “assignments,” but I’m anticipating a fresh influx of information and (hopefully) insights to share in my “morning meditations.” Perhaps (and this is also my hope), I’ll also experience fresh insights and spirituality within me as well.

But, as the quotes from the beginning of this little write-up suggest, no amount or type of study material will give you, me, or anyone else what we truly need: the ability to respond to God with faith and trust, and to follow His lead up into His heights, even when we find heights scary.

Torah Study for Christians

This is “Torah 101” for everyone. Torah Club Volume One: Unrolling the Scroll offers Christians a Messianic Jewish study from Genesis to Deuteronomy with easy-to-read, devotional-styled commentary on the weekly, synagogue Torah readings.

Peppered with insights from ancient rabbis and anecdotes from modern Christian life, Volume One demonstrates the value of Torah for Christian living today. Includes connections to the New Testament and writings of early Christians. This volume introduces students to both the Hebrew Roots of Christianity and the world of Messianic Judaism.

from the promotional material for
“Unrolling the Scroll”
Torah Club, Volume 1
ffoz.org

I know I’ve talked a great deal lately about returning the Torah to the Jews, so I suppose it seems odd that I’m now suggesting that we Christians actually study the Torah. Why the inconsistency?

Actually, no inconsistency exists. I never said that Torah, or how Jews understand the first five books of the Bible, was of no value to Christians, and in fact, I think that studying Torah is of tremendous value. You should be able to tell this by the fact that I cite mostly Jewish sources in my “morning meditations” and apply them within a Christian context.

One of my first introductions to the Torah within a “Messianic” context was the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Torah Club, but that was ten years ago. The Torah Club of today has been updated to be more relevant and eye-opening for Christian Bible study groups, and I must admit, having been absent from studying these materials for quite some time now, I’ve been curious about how they’ve evolved.

But what is the “Torah Club?” Sounds like meetings that adventurous Jewish boys would hold in a tree house or a book club for Jewish Bible readers. The second suggestion (both were tongue-in-cheek) isn’t far off.

To understand what the Torah Club is, you have to understand something about how Jews study the Torah in an annual cycle:

The Torah is an ancient scroll containing the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—the first five books of the Bible.

The Torah is the foundation of faith in Yeshua. All of the concepts associated with the Gospel—such as God, holiness, righteousness, sin, sacrifice, repentance, faith, forgiveness, covenant, grace and the kingdom of heaven on earth—are introduced in the Torah. Basic sacraments and rituals like baptism, communion, prayer and blessing all come from the Torah. Faith in Jesus is meaningful because of the Torah. Without the Torah, the Gospel has no foundation on which to stand.

The Torah Club follows the weekly Torah readings that are read in Jewish and Messianic synagogues every Sabbath. “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21). In the synagogue, the Torah begins with Genesis 1:1 in the fall, usually around October. Each week several chapters are read aloud to the congregation in Hebrew—a total of fifty-four Torah portions. Each reading is called a parashah, which means “portion.” The names of the weekly portions are derived from a significant Hebrew word in the first sentence of that week’s reading. A year after beginning the first portion, the congregation finishes Deuteronomy and begins Genesis again.

In addition to readings from the five books of Moses, the Torah Cycle includes a weekly reading from the prophets. At First Fruits of Zion, we have created an accompanying reading cycle for the Gospels and Acts as well.

The full introduction to the Torah Club can be found at ffoz.org, but I think you get the basic idea. The Torah Club is a set of materials that can be used by a study group to follow each week’s Torah reading and gain insights about that section of the Torah from the Messianic/Christian perspective.

Why should you, as a Christian, care about a Law that supposedly was nailed to the cross and died with Jesus?

Because it wasn’t. In fact, Jesus himself said that, “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18 ESV). As I look around, the earth is still here and I’ll take it for granted that heaven continues to exist. That would mean I suppose, that not everything is yet accomplished. But does that mean the Law or the Torah is fully applicable to the Christian as it is to the Jew?

As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t believe so, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter at all. As you’ve already read, you can’t really understand what Jesus was teaching in the Gospels unless you understand his “source material.” Virtually everything he taught and everything we try to understand today as Christians comes from Christ’s understanding of the Torah: a first century Jewish understanding. If you’ve always believed the Torah is dead and totally irrelevant to the teachings of Jesus, discovering this isn’t true is your first lesson in Torah.

If you know nothing about Torah and its relevance in the life of a Christian, and you’re looking for a way to “discover” Torah in a small Bible study group, starting with Unrolling the Scroll is your best bet. If you’ve just clicked that link though, you’ve discovered, that there are six volumes of the Torah Club, each one with a different emphasis.

  1. Unrolling the Scroll: Getting started with the ancient Torah
  2. Shadows of the Messiah: Lifting the veil and revealing Messiah in the Torah
  3. Voice of the Prophets: Studying the words of the prophets and the end times
  4. Chronicles of the Messiah: Studying the life and teachings of Jesus
  5. Depths of the Torah: Understanding the difficult laws of the Torah
  6. Chronicles of the Apostles: Learning the epic story of the apostles and the early Christians

You can click the link I provided above and then explore each of the “volumes” tabs to learn more. You can also read over 200 pages of Torah Club sample materials to get a firm handle on what to expect from this method of Torah study for Christians.

I know, I sound like an infomercial, but I have a reason for writing this “extra meditation” today. Like anyone else who isn’t a professional Bible scholar with multiple university degrees and tons of letters after my name, I could use some help in deciphering my understanding of God, the Torah, Jesus, and everything else. From where I am today in how I understand the Bible, if I had to choose one of the six volumes, I’d probably go for Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles:

Chronicles of the Apostles takes students on a year-long study of the book of Acts with Messianic commentary and Jewish insights into the Epistles.

Follow the lives and adventures of the apostles beyond the book of Acts and into the lost chapter of church history. Study Jewish sources, Church fathers, and Christian history to reveal the untold story of the disciples into the second century.

This all new Torah Club Volume Six (2011–12) goes beyond the book Acts and opens the lost chapter of Messianic Jewish and Christian history.

In a Bible study that reads like an epic novel, Chronicles of the Apostles harmonizes Josephus, rabbinic lore, and apostolic legends to tell the story of the martyrdom of Peter, the work of Thomas, the flight to Pella, the fall of Jerusalem, John’s exile on Patmos, the Roman persecutions, Shavuotthe second generation of disciples, the transitions from Sabbath to Sunday and from apostolic Judaism to Christianity. Rewind your religion and discover the truth about our Jewish roots.

Actually, I’ve ordered this volume for myself (though it hasn’t arrived yet) since, if you’ve been reading my blog over the last several weeks, you know that I’m investigating how the covenants God made with Israel allow Christians to have a covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ. I’m hoping “Chronicles of the Apostles” will illuminate my path.

Naturally, as I go through each week of study, I’ll write about it (I write about everything) and let you know what I’ve learned. If you want to learn more about the Torah and how its many differing viewpoints are applied to a Christian life and understanding of our Messiah, I can’t think of a better set of resources with which to start.

Blessings.