Happy Hanukkah

The menorah for the coming Temple
The menorah for the coming Temple

As my little bit towards celebrating the holiday, here’s a short story I wrote as an introduction for my upcoming book, Reforging the Menorah:

Icy cold winds whistled atop Mount Moriah, cutting through the cloaks of the men who approached it through the old City of David, armed with sword and spear. The armor and shields taken from their Greek foes had protected them against missile and melee alike, but did nothing to warm them as they passed through streets strewn with rubble and refuse. Most of the men were young, but no few of their number had gray in their long beards. It was those elders who felt the greatest trepidation as they approached the Miqdash, the Holy Place where the Eternal God had placed his Name in the days of David and Solomon . . . and which, they knew, had been corrupted so horribly by Antiochus IV’s idol.

They passed through the ancient gates without the songs that had graced the lips of their fathers, bearing no sacrifice but the memory of those who had fallen in defense of their nation and their faith, no blood but that which sanctified their weapons. Ahead of them, no priest lifted up his voice in prayer, and no fire from heaven lit the ancient altar. The sacred immersion pools were broken and spoiled; only a few had remained untainted to prepare their bodies to enter into what was yet—they hoped and prayed—holy ground.

They entered the outer court, and some among them groaned in horror at the sight of the Grecian idols scattered about, a memory of the idolatry that had polluted the first temple and led to its destruction. Others tore their garments at the sight of the altar, contaminated by the blood of pigs, the bones of which still sat atop the ruined stones.

Their leader was among those who tore his garments. He was, after all, the son of a priest, and knew all too well the law. His family had spent centuries trying to restore the worship of the Eternal God to this land, rebuilding a temple that was like a shack compared to the glories of the one that had preceded it. The wine-dark eyes of Y’hudah Maqqabah, Judah the Hammer, called Maccabeus by the Greeks, did not linger long on the altar, however. They swept the courtyard dilligently, searching for any trap or ambush, then turned to the doors of the temple. His stride paused at the porch, between the two pillars Boaz and Yachin, as he considered laying aside his weapons before pressing further. But there could yet be enemies about—it was a small risk; they had, after all, waited the requisite seven days of cleansing to remove the uncleaness of the men they had slain and the friends they had buried—so he went within yet armed.

In the days of the Davidic kingdom, the interior walls had been covered with gold, decorated with the bas-relief of a great garden, a remembrance of Gan-Eden. There had been ten tables for the Bread of the Presence, lit by ten golden menorahs. Now, the only light came in through the doors behind him and a few narrow windows above. It was enough to show the carnage: The single table and single menorah were both gone. Instead, he found eight golden spears, doubtless cast from the melted-down gold of the holy furnishings.

In the days of Solomon, a great curtain had separated the holy place from the inner sanctum, the Most Holy place which the priests sometimes called the Davar, or Word. Within the Davar the Glory of the Holy One had shone above the Holy Ark of the Covenant, and only the High Priest had been able to enter within, and then only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It was that Glory, that Presence of the Eternal One which had made Israel the Holy People, for no other people on earth could claim that the Creator himself dwelt with them as he did with Israel.

The Glory was gone, departing due to Israel’s faithlessness, idolatry, and wickedness nearly five centuries ago. The Ark was gone as well; some said it was hidden in the Land, others that it had been carried off to Egypt or beyond long ago. Y’hudah knew only that it hadn’t been taken to Babylon, and that it had never returned. The Holy of Holies had lain empty, darkened, desolate since it was built by Yoshua the priest and Zerubabbel the governor. The priests who had returned from the exile had restored the service, but while they still honored the God of Heaven and had abolished the idolatry which had been Israel’s ruin, the Glory had not returned despite all their fervent prayer. The Holy One had not forgiven his people.

Y’hudah found only a small pleasure in their victory over the Greeks, the few defeating the many, the weak overthrowing the strong. Surely, it was a sign that the God of Abraham had not wholly forsaken the children of Abraham, that even if the time wasn’t yet, the time would come when the Glory would return to his temple.

But now, looking at the idol that had taken the Ark’s place in the Holy of Holies, Y’hudah’s heart fell. Zeus-Pater, the god of the Greeks, stared down at him with eyes set into the likeness of Antiochus’ face. Antiochus had surnamed himself Epiphanes, the manifestation of his god Zeus. Y’hudah preferred to call him Epimanes, the Madman, but there was no doubt that there had been a dark genius in Antiochus’ madness.

Y’hudah looked coldly at the graven image of Zeus, holding his thunderbolt. The name was different, but the image was familiar. Half a millennium ago, the majority in Israel had forsaken the Holy One for another storm god, Baal. Looking at the face of Zeus, sensing a dark, sinuous presence in the shadows, Y’hudah realized that they were one and the same.

“Bring hammers,” the Maqqabah commanded his men. “Tear it down, and break it into pieces.”

“What do we do now, Rabbi?” young Shimon asked him hours later, as he watched the shattered pieces of Zeus being carried out of the temple to be cast into the Valley of Hinnom.

“We cleanse the temple. We rebuild. And we praise God for this victory,” Y’hudah answered. His voice carried more certainty than he felt. How did one cleanse and rebuild from this?

“The altar?” Shimon asked. “Can we . . . fix it? Sacrifice on it?”

Y’hudah shook his head. “There is nothing in the Torah that covers this, and there is no prophet left in the Land to speak for the Lord. Have the stones carried away and secured in a cave until God makes his will clear. In the meantime, we will lay new stones for the altar.”

“But what of the table, Rabbi? What of the menorah?”

Y’hudah hesitated longer before answering. “Find a suitable table in the city. We will make one specifically for the temple later. For the menorah . . .” He frowned. Could he . . . ? “Bring the golden lances we found to Sha’ul the smith. He will melt them down and forge a new menorah from the remains of the old.” He dismissed his aide, and turned towards the chamber he had set aside for his use. “Please God, let it be a worthy light in your eyes . . .”

A week later, and the Temple was cleansed, and sacrifice had been restored to the altar. Y’hudah Maqqabah declared the eight days that followed to be a festival for the chanukkah, the dedication, of the temple. “Why eight days, Rabbi?” asked Shimon.

Y’hudah smiled for the first time in a long while. “We’ve missed celebrating the Feast of Booths these last eight years,” he said. “I don’t wish to wait another nine months to celebrate it again, so we will have a festival of lights here and now. The people deserve to have their joy.” And the Lord deserves to see his people rejoice before him, he thought, as the newly reforged menorah was lit again for the first time.

From HebrewRoot: Acts 15

Once again, Christians refuse to show the Jerusalem Council as actually Jewish
Once again, Christians refuse to show the Jerusalem Council was actually Jewish

And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria , declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. And when they were come to Jerusalem , they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.

And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. . .

[Jacob (James) said,] “Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.” (Acts 15:1-6, 19-21, NKJV)

So, did the Jerusalem Council really just toss the Torah out the window? Not at all!

First, note that at no point is the question even raised about Jewish believers keeping the Torah: It was assumed as a given that they should (cf. Acts 21:21-25)! The question was how to handle the influx of Gentile converts, as I pointed out in my response to a post by Peter Goodgame back here.

Dealing With the Common Interpretation:  Was This the Starting Point or the Finish Line?

Let’s assume for the moment that the classical interpretation of this passage, that the only commands from the Torah that Gentile converts were expected to keep were the four outlined here, is correct.  This immediately begs the question:  Did the Apostles envision these commands as the end-all, be-all of a Gentile Christian’s walk, or did they merely intend these to be the initial requirements for salvation and fellowship?  The data strongly favors the latter.

First, notice what is missing from these four commands: the two most important:

“Rabbi, which of the mitzvoth (commandments) in the Torah is the most important?”  He[Yeshua] told him, “‘You are to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’  This is the greatest and most important mitzvah. And a second is similar to it, ‘You are to love your neighbor as yourself.’  All of the Torahand the Prophets are dependent on these two mitzvot.”  (Mat. 22:36-40)

That’s right, the two foundational commandments on which all Scripture is built are not even brought up by the Jerusalem council!  That tells us right there that something other than the creation of a distinct list of commands for Gentile believers is being discussed here.  More on that in a moment.

“Well, those are the moral commands, which are universal,” one might argue.  “Maybe they’re dealing with which ceremonial commands Gentile believers are still under.”  This argument falls apart on two points.

First, other ceremonial commands were indisputably required of Gentile believers and are universally recognized as such:  Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for example.  It’s interesting that these rituals (calling them “sacraments” doesn’t change anything—a ritual is a ritual) which have been at the center of debate in the Ekklesia for two millennia and which are considered a requirement for salvation in many groups aren’t even mentioned here.  Furthermore, Paul commands that the Passover Feast be kept in 1Co. 5:7-8 and told the Colossians not to be dissuaded from observing God’s Appointed Times in Col. 2:15-17.  Jacob tells the sick to come to the elders for anointing with oil (Jas. 5:14, cf. Mark 6:13).

Second, the Scriptures themselves make no hard distinction between the “moral law” and the “ceremonial law”—it’s all one Torah.  It’s surely a moral commandment to release the poor from their debts, yet that commandment is intricately linked with the ceremonial observance of the Sabbatical year (Deu. 15).  Indeed, since the moral commandments tell us how to go about loving our neighbor, it stands to reason that the ceremonial commandments, by which we “tie them [God’s words] on your hand as a sign, put them at the front of a headband around your forehead” (Deu. 6:8, cf. Exo. 13:9) is part-and-parcel of the Prime Commandment, “Hear O Israel , the LORD our God, the LORD is One; and you are to love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being and all your resources” (Deu. 6:4-5, cf. Mark 12:29-30).  To try to separate the two is to say that the Prime Commandment is no longer in effect, but the second most important commandment is.

On the contrary, since we see that there were many other commands that the Gentiles were expected to follow, as evidenced in the epistles, we should understand that these four commands, if indeed they were the only commands of the Torah required as a prerequisite to acceptance and fellowship, were intended as a starting point, not the finishing line.

Salvation by Works?

Faith-vs-Works-Logo

In this view, the Apostles were dealing with walking a tightrope:  If they emphasized Torah-observance and in any way made it a prerequisite to fellowship, then they would a) send out the message that salvation is by faith plus works, and b) put an enormous stumbling-block in the way of those who wanted to come to God. Let’s look at those two issues separately a moment.

Issue A is intimately tied to the racial issue which we deal with more thoroughly below, but it was also tied to avoiding making belief in the Messiah Yeshua just another mystery religion. Every mystery cult had their “path to salvation” where if you did x, y, and z exactly right you could supposedly ascend. Christianity was the only religion which said that not only did God simply want your trust and love, but which said that if you tried to earn the gift that was freely offered, you were insulting your Benefactor.

Issue B was just as much a problem: The fact was that many Gentiles simply could not keep the whole Torah as a matter of practicality. A slave could not insist on taking the Sabbath off, for example, nor could even many free men. Being circumcised was considered self-mutilation by the Greeks; imagine if you tried to join a church and they insisted that you had to cut off your right ear! Therefore, if they made Torah-observance a matter of fellowship, many who would otherwise want to repent and come to God would be discouraged.

Salvation by Faith; Growth by the Word

Therefore, they came to a most merciful and graceful decision: They set the bar for fellowship low. They insisted only that new converts “abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.” Each of these four items is directly tied to the pagan practices of the day: Idolatry, temple prostitution, strangled sacrifices, and drinking blood were all regular practices which, if the new believer avoided them, would prevent him from participating in the pagan culture of the first century.

As it turns out, there is a parallel in the Talmud to the stance the Apostles took:

Then how do I interpret the verse, “That I may take the house of Israel in their own heart” (Eze. 14: 5)?  Said R. Aha bar Jacob, “That is written with reference to idolatry. For a master has said, ‘The sin of idolatry is so weighty that one who denies idolatry is as though he had confessed to the entirety of the whole Torah.’”  (b. Talmud, Qiddushin 40a)

Likewise, Princeton scholar Dr. Davies writes that the non-Messianic Judaism of the Apostles’ day had developed a whole body of literature

to popularize the good life among the heathen.  It described the way of life that all men should lead, seeking by means of saws and aphorisms, narratives and rules, to guide men into the right way.  Judaism . . . recognized that mankind as a while could not accept the Torah in its fullness but in the derek ‘eretz [“Way of the Land”] literature it offered to all a way that they could follow, a signpost to the desirable goal.  It was, of course, hoped that the knowledge of derek eretz would whet the appetite of a convert for the whole Torah later on.  (Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, 132f)

This seems to be very much the stance that the Jerusalem Council took: Separate the Gentiles from idolatry and bring them into the worship of the One, True God through the Messiah, and it would be as if they kept all of the Torah–that is, by faith they would be considered as righteous as if they kept the whole Torah.

Hegg_Letter_WriterTim Hegg concurs in his book, The Letter Writer.  He points out that in the initial list (v. 20) the definite article “the” appears before each of the four items indicates that “[e]ach of the four must have been things that both the Jewish community as well as the Gentiles were aware of and that could be identified by single terms” (p. 272); the second list lacks the definite articles so that “it consists of only four words connected by the word ‘and’” (p. 270), so as to make the list easier to memorize and pass on.  He goes on to suggest that the different order of the second list was so that “the two items that primarily identified the idol worship of the pagan temples . . . became the ‘bookends’ to envelop the entire list” so that “the four items given to the Gentiles are a unified whole identifying idol worship in pagan temples” (p. 272).

Thus rather than listing four separate categories of prohibited practices for the Gentiles, the four requirements describe a single category—the pagan temples and their rituals.  And though idolatry would naturally be considered outside the scope of a believer’s life, what the Apostles are calling for was conformity to the additional rabbinic halachah that pertained to idolatry—the “fences” not found in Scripture but necessary in this realm for inclusion into the Jewish community.

If the Mishnah give us a picture of the 1 st Century rabbinic viewpoint then we can see that fences had been built to guarantee a clear separation between synagogual community and the idolatry of the Hellenistic culture in which it existed.  The Apostles were willing to lay this “burden” upon the believing Gentiles in order to preserve them from any accusations of idolatry, something that could have never been tolerated in the wider Jewish community.  (p. 273)

This understanding matches the contents of the list itself:  While fornication and ingesting blood are specifically prohibited by the Torah, eating something strangled (provided that the blood is drained) and eating food that had been sacrificed to idols are not.  They are logical inferences one can make from the Torah’s general prohibition against idolatry (strangulation being one of the chief means by which animals were sacrificed in Greek culture), but then, that’s what halakha is supposed to be.

Some propose that these items were meant to be the only requirements on Gentile Christians forever, but if so, by what right did Paul tell the brethren to stay away from theft and contentiousness or to honor their parents and send monetary support to Jerusalem? Why did Jacob command support of the poor and not favoring the rich? None of these items were on the list!

Therefore, it is understood by those of us on the Messianic side that the four commandments were never meant as an end, but as a starting-point. By separating the Gentile believers from idolatry (and this would have its own social consequences), they would become “clean” enough to enter the synagogues as God-fearers to worship and learn about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob alongside their Messianic Jewish brethren. This is why Jacob concludes with, “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day” (v. 21).

The idea was that since the Holy Spirit was being given freely to the Gentiles who believed, that the Apostles would trust the Spirit to finish what He had started in His own time. However, even within that expectation, we see the Apostles exhorting the churches, giving specific commands, and even passing judgment on those who sinned, so it was not expected to be an automatic or smooth process. But it was one that they ultimately trusted in God to bring to completeness.

ephesians-2-vs-8-9A new disciple once asked me once about the relationship between faith and works and how he could know he was saved.  I told him, “You know you are saved because you have trusted Yeshua for the work He has done, not what you have done.  Like Israel , you have already been delivered from Egypt by God’s grace and now you are at Mt. Sinai to learn what He wants to teach you.  You’ve been given a new heart, a new inmost being that earnestly desires to obey God.  So when you read His Word, don’t look at it as a set of commands that you’re in trouble if you don’t memorize and keep them all; look at them as the words of your beloved Father, who is teaching you bit by bit and day by day to be more like him.”

One of the three major events which resulted in me becoming a Messianic was enjoying a Passover dinner given by Rabbi Scott Sekulow at the Southern Baptist church I was then a member of.  I was amazed at how every element pointed to Christ, and I couldn’t figure out why we as Christians weren’t regularly celebrating this feast.  It had nothing to do with feeling “under the law,” or fearing that if I didn’t keep it I was in trouble.  Rather, God in His Spirit spoke to me through the Passover, and blessed me through it.  Around the world, millions of Christians are starting to discover the same joy of keeping God’s Feastdays and discovering their Jewish roots.  They didn’t do so because someone told them it was a requirement, but because like the 1st Century Gentile believers, somebody preached Moses to them in their synagogue (church), and the Spirit responded in them.  I think the Apostles meant for the same to happen, so that learning about God would be a joy instead of a crushing burden.

But There’s More!  Ethnicity and Tradition and the Jerusalem Council

So far, we have dealt only with the common interpretation of Acts 15 that the four commands given here were the only parts of “the Law” that Gentile believers were (and are) required to keep.  We have seen that even if that interpretation is largely correct, since the Apostles gave or alluded to additional commands from the Torah which should be kept in their epistles (as indeed Yeshua did in the Gospel accounts as well), that we can only understand these commands to be the prerequisites to salvation and fellowship, not the end-point of a new believer’s growth.

However, the context of the passage tells us that there was something more going on, as does a comparison of Scripture-to-Scripture.  Indeed, we find as we probe deeper that the issue before the Council was not Torah-observance, but ethnicity—which is to say, cultural identity—and tradition!

The First Key:  Entering the Synagogues

Jacob’s final statement is the first key to truly understanding this passage.  Here it is as rendered in the CJB:

“Therefore, my opinion is that we should not put obstacles in the way of the Goyim who are turning to God. Instead, we should write them a letter telling them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from fornication, from what is strangled and from blood.  For from the earliest times, Moshe has had in every city those who proclaim him, with his words being read in the synagogues every Shabbat.”  (Acts 15:19-21)

Nazareth SynagogueHere Jacob links the four commandments that they imposed on the Gentiles with the preaching of Moses—that is, the Torah delivered by Moses—in the synagogues.  This has often been interpreted by commentators to mean, “After all, we’ve heard the Law taught in the synagogues for fifteen centuries, and it hasn’t done us any good, so why should we make the Gentile Christians obey it?”  However, this interpretation is flawed.  Remember that in this time, the Ekklesia had not yet separated from the synagogue.  Indeed, we see that Gentiles often swamped the synagogues to hear this word of the Messiah who came to save the whole world (cf. Acts 13:42ff, 14:1ff).  There was nowhere else for them to go to hear of the One True God, but they were often opposed by those Jews who did not believe in Yeshua.

Now note carefully what caused the uproars that Paul and Bar-Nabba (Barnabas) faced as they tried to preach the word of the Messiah:  It wasn’t their teaching that the Messiah had come in the person of Yeshua, but rather that the Gentiles were flooding into the synagogues.  Luke tells us that “when the Jews who had not believed saw the crowds” in Antioch-Pisidia, “they were filled with jealousy” (Acts 13:45), and it was this jealousy, this desire to keep the synagogue “a Jewish thing” that provoked those who were not persuaded that Yeshua was the Messiah to attack the Gospel.  We see the same thing happening again in Iconium (14:5).

Therefore, we should understand Jacob’s closing remark to be connected to the uproar caused by the Gentiles trying to enter the synagogues to learn about the God of Israel.  We’ll return to this point in a moment.

The Second Key:  Salvation by Ethnicity?

Since this is the immediate context of the events leading up to the Jerusalem Council, we need to factor it into our understanding of the source of the controversy and Jacob’s judgment.  First, the controversy:  The original issue (in 15:1) was not over the Torah, but that some Judeans taught the Gentile brothers, “You can’t be saved unless you undergo circumcision in the manner prescribed by Moses.”  Later, some of the Messianic Pharisees added to this that they must also keep the Torah (v. 5), but the first issue was a matter of ethnicity; that is, cultural identity.

First, let us look at what circumcision meant in the 1st Century.  It was more than just the removal of the foreskin (though that in itself was a barrier to the Greeks, as already mentioned); rather, “circumcision” was synonymous with “being a Jew” (cf. Gal. 2:7ff, Col. 3:11).  When a Greek was circumcised as a proselyte, he ceased to be a Greek and became a Jew.  By saying that one had to be circumcised as a prerequisite for salvation, the Judaizers were saying that God only cared about the Jews.  Such a view was actually contrary to the Torah itself, not just the New Testament; Israel was supposed to be a priestly nation (Exo. 19:6), ministering to the nations as the Levitical cohenim ministered to the tribes, and teaching them about the Eternal Father and His ways.  Instead, by the 1st Century, Israel had built a wall around the Temple to keep the Gentiles from drawing near!

It is a common misperception that Judaism teaches that one is saved by obeying the Torah—a misperception that many Jews today believe.  However, the Mishnah teaches that a Jew’s place in the world-to-come is not on the basis of his merits, but on being a member of God’s covenant people, Israel :

All Israelites have a share in the world to come, as it is said, “your people also shall be all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever; the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified.” (m. Sanhedron 11:1)

It was only natural then, that when the Gentiles began flooding into the synagogues to hear about the Messiah that a loving and holy God had sent to redeem them, the larger Jewish community, to whom Yeshua’s Messiahship was still an open question, responded by saying that these Gentiles could indeed be saved—if they entered Israel’s covenants by undergoing the rabbinical ceremony of circumcision, giving up their identity as Gentiles and becoming fully Jewish (Acts 15:1).

This was the original question before the Jerusalem Council:  It wasn’t a question of whether Gentiles should obey God’s commands, but a question of whether salvation was by faith in Yeshua HaMashiach regardless of one’s genealogy, or whether salvation was by faith plus being Jewish!

When faced with this controversy, the Jerusalem council opposed the Judaizers on two bases:  First, the obvious work of the Holy Spirit, who for example did not wait until Cornelius and his family proselytized to Jewishness but instead came upon them in power while they were still Gentiles (Acts 10:44-48).  And second, on the basis of a prophecy in Amos 9:11-12 which said that there would be Gentiles, not just converted Jews, called by God’s Name. This prophecy was hardly alone in the Tanakh (the OT); for example, Isa. 11:10 says, “And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse (the Messiah), who shall stand as a banner to the people; for the Gentiles shall seek Him, and His resting place shall be glorious.”  The apostles therefore understood that to force Gentiles to become Jews to receive full fellowship was to deny God’s promises and deny the evidence of the Spirit.

The Third Key:  The “Yoke” of the Oral Torah

“But,” one might object, “didn’t the Apostles also call the Torah a yoke too heavy to bear (Acts 15:10)?” Not at all! First, let us consider what the Torah has to say about itself:

For this mitzvah which I am giving you today is not too hard for you, it is not beyond your reach.  It isn’t in the sky, so that you need to ask, ‘Who will go up into the sky for us, bring it to us and make us hear it, so that we can obey it?’  Likewise, it isn’t beyond the sea, so that you need to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea for us, bring it to us and make us hear it, so that we can obey it?’  On the contrary, the word is very close to you–– in your mouth, even in your heart; therefore, you can do it! (Deu. 30:11-14)

In other words, there is nothing about the Torah that is arduous or humanly impossible to keep—and in that lies our just condemnation under God’s Law. If keeping His commandments was impossible, then He wouldn’t hold us accountable for keeping them; but having given us a Torah that we could keep, our true rebellious nature is made manifest.


Yeshua Himself, though endorsing every last letter of the Torah and saying that those who taught against keeping the least command would be the least in the Kingdom of Heaven (note that the issue is teaching falsely, and that it clearly isn’t a salvational issue), said, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Mat. 11:28-30, NKJV)—this in contrast to the heavy burdens His contemporary rabbis were tying to mens’ backs (23:4).  He did not regard the Torah—properly interpreted and applied—to be a burden.

No, this heavy yoke must be something else; and by simply carefully studying the debates between Yeshua and the Pharisees, it’s not hard to understand what it was: Yeshua never once criticized a single commandment of the Torah, but vehemently opposed adding commandments to the Torah so as to make it a burden or pervert its meaning. For example, He condemned the Pharisees for judging others on how (or if) they ceremonially washed their hands, or for gleaning a bit of food on the Sabbath, or for allowing one to sidestep their oaths and their obligation to care for (honor) their parents by way of legal loopholes. It was the addition of literally thousands of extra-Torahic commands, too many for any other than a scholar to even keep track of, which made the Torah a burden—and it was that culture of legalism that the Apostles wished to protect the Gentile converts from, not the Torah itself.

Talmud_setTim Hegg (The Letter Writer, 262-263, 264) explains:

The use of the term “yoke” in the Rabbinic literature is well attested.  The Midrashim speak of the “yoke of the Torah,” as well as the “yoke of God” and “yoke of the kingdom of heaven,” while Sifra and the Mishnah include “yoke of the commandments.”  For the Sages, the metaphor of the “yoke” was one of willful submission to the Torah and thus ultimately to the rule of God.

But when the rulings of men became so intertwined with the written Torah that for all practical purposes the two were one, to neglect the traditions of the Sages was viewed as a neglect of Torah.  Remember, one of the Sayings of the Fathers warns that interpretations of the Torah that differed from received halachah render a person unfit for the world-to-come.  The implication is obvious: to throw off the traditions was to cast away the “yoke of the commandments” and to mark oneself as a heretic.

. . . Yet Paul was unwilling to require the Gentiles to submit to the many man-made laws of the rabbis in order to be received into the community of believers.  And his decision to move in this direction was considered by some to be worthy of death.  The “yoke” of tradition had sat across the neck of Israel for so long that it was impossible for many to ever envision a genuine faith in God without it.  And when it came to the Gentiles it was impossible to consider receiving them apart from their willing submission to the man-made ceremony of the proselyte.

“But the Pharisees specifically refer to the Law (v. 5),” one might object.  This is true.  However, to the Pharisees (like the Orthodox today), the Law meant more than just the written Torah. It meant their traditions, the “Oral Torah,” as well.  Thus we see on the JewFAQ website, under the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith:  “The Written Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) and Oral Torah (teachings now contained in the Talmud and other writings) were given to Moses.”  To the Pharisees, the Written and Oral Torah were inseparable, and one cannot keep one without keeping the other.  Thus we see them:

  • Accusing Yeshua of breaking the Sabbath by healing, even though healing was not specifically prohibited on the Sabbath by the Torah.
  • Accusing Yeshua’s disciples of breaking the Sabbath for gleaning a snack from a field, even though this too is not specifically prohibited by the Torah.
  • Accusing Yeshua’s disciples, and later the Master Himself, of breaking a commandment by not ritually washing their hands before a meal.

In addition, we know that many of the rules regarding ritual purity had been raised to a level specifically designed to keep Jews from even coming under the roof of a Gentile, or even Pharisees from coming under the roof of less observant Jews, as I explain in the series on the Eighteen Measures. Attempting to bring the new Gentile converts under this interpretation of the Law would have completely stifled the Gentile mission altogether.

Conclusion

The Jerusalem Council’s decisions have long been misunderstood by the Ekklesia as a whole.  We have seen that the Jerusalem Council never even considered the idea that the Torah was no longer valid and binding on Jewish believers.  We have also seen that they were a) dealing only with the prerequisites for salvation and fellowship by the Gentile believers, b) requiring that the Gentiles completely separate themselves from pagan worship, and c) were most likely also dealing with the issue of how much rabbinical tradition was incumbent on the Gentile believers, not with how much of the written Torah was valid.  In either case, we have seen that the issue was how best to bring the Gentiles into the synagogues to learn about God from the Torah.

If the intent was merely to get the Gentile Christians off to a good start in worshiping only the God of Israel, exactly how far did the Jerusalem Council expect them to go in their observance. Judging by Jacob’s reaffirmation of the Council’s decision many years later (Acts 21:25), they did not even attempt to answer the question. They were well aware that just as there were commandments in the Torah specific to the priests, some specific to farmers and herders, some specific to men or to women, and so forth, that there would be commandments specific to Israel that the Gentiles would not be required to keep. They trusted in the Spirit and gentle encouragement to bring the Gentiles to following the commandments universal for all mankind, and did not allow debates on specific issues to divide the body. (As we see later in Romans 14.)

Ultimately, the problem faced by the Jerusalem Council is not unlike that faced by many congregations today:  How exactly does one go about introducing new believers to the faith?  Their answer was a most gracious one that we can learn from:  Those professing the Messiah were required to distance themselves from their former pagan lives in order to enter the synagogues–the houses of worship and study–where they would hear the Word of God preached and be encouraged to grow in the Spirit.

Shalom.

From HebrewRoot: Answering Romans 14

Vegan Meal

As I noted in my last post, this series has been sparked in part due to Cris Putnam’s posts dealing with the Sabbath on his Logos Apologia blog. My introductory post was edited pretty heavily around answering his arguments. This one is less so, mostly because the article I wrote a half-decade ago pretty much covers what I would want to say today.

When I was younger, I once made a tongue-in-cheek argument to a couple of friends that based on this passage, I could prove that I had the greatest faith of all if I could just come up with a meal that broke every kosher commandment all at once.  Ah, the foolishness of youth!

In dealing with this passage, we really have to subdivide it into two separate issues, both of which are under the umbrella of unity in the Body of the Messiah—which is really what Paul is dealing with.  In fact, the subject of unity between the Redeemed from every sort of background is the very reason he wrote Romans.  Therefore, even if Paul was calling those who kept the Torah “weak”—and we will see shortly that he was not—he still commands the “strong” not to judge them, but rather, “let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (v. 13, NKJV).

Let us then deal with this passage in this light.  First, does Paul call those keeping kosher “weak”?  Let us read what he says:

Kosher vs. Vegetarianism

Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things.  For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.  (vv. 1-4, NKJV)

The key phrase is in bold above.  Note the nature of the issue:  Paul does not call one weak who “eats only certain kinds of meat,” but says that of the vegetarian, one who eats no meat at all!

Now let us be clear about something:  One who simply prefers vegetables to meat as a matter of taste, or who takes on a vegetarian diet for health reasons, or even one who avoids meat because of a soft spot for animals is not being called weak in their faith here—indeed, none of those reasons has anything to do with one’s faith.  Rather, though Paul does not here spell it out for us, the issue is tied to the issue of eating things sacrificed to idols.

Remember that one of the main injunctions that the new Gentile believers were held to was to avoid eating meat sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:20 & 29, 21:25; 1 Co. 10:20f).  This apparently led to a debate over whether one had to investigate the origin of every piece of meat sold in the market, much of which may have come from the pagan temples.  Since constantly worrying about the origin of meat would have made the impression that the Christians were afraid of the pagan gods getting some power over them through food, Paul gave the following guidelines on how to deal with meat:

So, as for eating food sacrificed to idols, we “know” that, as you say, “An idol has no real existence in the world, and there is only one God.”  For even if there are so–called “gods,” either in heaven or on earth––as in fact there are “gods” and  “lords” galore––yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom all things come and for whom we exist; and one Lord, Yeshua the Messiah, through whom were created all things and through whom we have our being.

But not everyone has this knowledge. Moreover, some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat food which has been sacrificed to them, they think of it as really affected by the idol; and their consciences, being weak, are thus defiled.  Now food will not improve our relationship with God––we will be neither poorer if we abstain nor richer if we eat.  However watch out that your mastery of the situation does not become a stumbling block to the weak.  You have this “knowledge”; but suppose someone with a weak conscience sees you sitting, eating a meal in the temple of an idol. Won’t he be built up wrongly to eat this food which has been sacrificed to idols? Thus by your “knowledge” this weak person is destroyed, this brother for whom the Messiah died; and so, when you sin against the brothers by wounding their conscience when it is weak, you are sinning against the Messiah! To sum up, if food will be a snare for my brother, I will never eat meat again, lest I cause my brother to sin.  (1 Co. 8:4-13, CJB)

That is to say, they were not to worry about investigating the background of every piece of meat, whether bought at the market or offered at a pagan friends’ table, but if they were told that the meat had in fact been sacrificed to an idol, they were to abstain—not because the meat had any power over them, but so as to provide a witness that they had completely separated from the pagan gods, both to the pagans and to the Jews!  Indeed, Paul states that he would rather not eat meat ever again than to cause his brother to sin (skandalιsu, literally, to trip or cause to stumble).

Apparently, there were those in the Roman fellowship who rejected eating any meat at all on the basis that it might have been sacrificed to an idol (if they had not received Paul’s letters to the Corinthians) or to avoid causing others to stumble.  If the first was the case, then Paul was calling their faith “weak” because they were taking an unnecessary precaution and treating the meat as if it truly had power over them.  If the latter was the case, then he is not truly calling them weak, but is referring to the perception that they are weak by their brothers.

Whichever is the case, two points are key:

  1. The issue is not avoiding certain kinds of meat out of a desire to obey a mitzvot (command) from God, but on creating a “fence around the Torah” by avoiding meat altogether.
  2. Whether he truly regards those so doing as weak or not, Paul commands that they are not to be despised (i.e., looked down on, rejected) on the basis of their practice!  Therefore, even if he was addressing the issue of kosher—which he is most certainly not—a “normal” Christian is forbidden to harass or look down on the Messianic who believes that it is right and appropriate to avoid pork (14:20-15:2).

Every Day Alike?

One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.  (Rom. 14:5-6, NKJV)

Also, changing the holy day to Sunday is not "treating every day alike."
Also, changing the holy day to Sunday is not “treating every day alike.”

The first thing to notice on Paul’s teaching here is what is missing: That’s right, he does not call the one who “esteems one day above another” “weak.” Some assume that he thinks them weak on the basis of parallelism, but as every word in Scripture means something, we should not note that Paul very deliberately leaves out the word. Indeed, it would be most inconsistent with Paul’s life and teachings if he thought those who observed God’s Mo’edim (Appointed Times/Feasts) to be weak by doing so.  After all, he

  • hurried to be in Jerusalem by Shavuot (Pentecost), a pilgrimage feast (Acts 20:16);
  • commanded the Corinthians to “keep the Feast” of Passover, “For our Pesach lamb, the Messiah, has been sacrificed” (1 Co. 5:7, 8);
  • observed the Sabbath with prayer and worship (cf. Acts 16:13).
  • told the Colossians not to let anyone “pass judgment on you in connection with eating and drinking, or in regard to a Jewish festival or New Moon or Sabbath.  These are a shadow of things that are coming, but the body is of the Messiah” (Col. 2:16-17).

And finally, if it is true that Paul wrote the book of Hebrews (as early Church tradition has it), he actually states flat out that we are to rest from our works on the seventh day as God did from His (Heb. 4:1-11).  Indeed, he could hardly have rejected the charge that he was teaching Jews to disobey the Torah if he hadn’t (Acts 21:20ff).

No, it is clear that to interpolate that Paul thought that those who observed the Lord’s Appointed Times into this text is to miss the point.

The Crisis That Raised the Issue

So if Paul believed that one should continue to keep the Feasts, why then does he here make it optional?  To answer that question, we need to look at the circumstances particular to the Roman church:  At some point during the reign of Claudius (41-54 CE) the Jews were expelled from Rome (cf. Acts 18:2f); according to Suetonius, a Roman historian (“Life of Claudius,” chapter 25), this was because they were “were constantly exciting tumults under their leader, Chrestus.”  Many historians and commentators consider it likely that “Chrestus” is an accidental misspelling of Christos, or Christ, and that the tumults arising were due to conflict between believers, both Jew and Gentile, and the non-believing Jews.  Regardless of whether this was the case or not, the Jews, both Messianic and not, were expelled from Rome.

This begs the question:  How did the Romans identify the Jews for legal purposes?  It is unlikely that they would have tracked down genealogical records. It is far more likely that the Jews were simply identified as anyone who identified with the Jewish synagogue, kept the Jewish Feasts instead of the pagan holidays, observed Sabbath, etc.  This provides the key to understanding Paul’s teaching here, since those Christians who remained in Rome would have been Gentiles who were not keeping those days, at least not openly enough to be noticed.  Remember that many early Christians were slaves, who did not get to have a day off apart from the pagan holidays; even most freemen could not take a day off without risking their jobs (and starvation).

Now keep in mind what the sudden loss of the Jewish community meant to those early Christians.  Suddenly, they had no Scriptures, except perhaps a few epistles that were in circulation.  They also lost their teachers and even their places of worship.  Further, if they tried to keep the Sabbaths and the Feasts, they too risked expulsion—and unlike the Jews, they did not have a larger community outside of Rome to provide support and aid in re-establishing themselves—or worse in the case of slaves.  So what did they do?  They carried on as best they could, trying to treat every day as holy, and remembering that they were saved by their trust in the Son of God, not by keeping the Torah correctly.

When the Jews were allowed to return, there was doubtless tension between the Jewish and Gentile believers.  It is that tension which Paul is attempting to defuse in his letter.  Chapters 1-3 make the point that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), so no one has room to boast. Chapters 4-5 builds the idea of salvation by faith rather than works, while chapters 6-7 counterbalance this by explaining that God’s grace is no license to sin.  Chapter 8 brings these two thoughts together in a reminder that whose who are in the Messiah are in God’s hands, and He is committed to conform us “into the image of His Son” (v. 29).

Chapters 9-11 deal with the issue of Israel ’s corporate rejection of the Messiah, and what that means for her prophetic promises.  Paul answer is that Israel was hardened so that the Gentiles might be saved, and the Gentiles are being saved that Israel might be provoked to jealousy and likewise be saved. His conclusion is that, “all Israel will be saved, as it is written,” not because of their own merits, but because of God’s irrevocable promises to their fathers (11:25-29).  From there, Paul in the last chapters calls on each to use the gifts that God has given him or her in love, to respect those in authority, and most of all not to divide over grey areas.

The entire purpose of Romans is to promote brotherhood in the Body of Yeshua, and that is the context into which Romans 14 must be read.

Even today, there is a continuing debate within Messianic Judaism as to whether Gentile believers should keep the Appointed Times that the Eternal One gave to Israel .  On the one side are those who believe that the Sabbath and the Feasts were given to Israel —which is to say, the Jewish people—particularly as a sign of the Lord’s covenant with them, and generally encourage Gentile Christians to remain in their Sunday churches and keep the nominal Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter.  On the other side are those who believe that God’s Appointed Times are for everyone grafted into Israel through Israel ’s King. At one time, I identified more heavily with the latter. These days, while I argue for the ongoing nature of Hashem’s Appointed Times in the New Covenant, I’m less concerned with whether anyone agrees with me with whether their opposition is voiced in a way that creates a stumbling block for my Jewish brothers and sisters.

What we should all carry away from Romans 14 is not a discouragement against keeping the Torah, but a discouragement from despising each other over honest differences in opinion on matters of practice within the faith of the Messiah Yeshua.

Shalom!

From HebrewRoot: Answering Objections – Introduction

sundaymorningworship-300x300A couple of things came together to start this series. First, Cris Putnam has been posting a series on his blog (Logos Apologia) about what he calls “Confusion About Sunday Worship.” I agree there’s a lot of confusion on the subject, and I think many of my Hebrew Roots brethren are a bit too strident on the subject, but I think Cris is a bit blind to the confusion on his own side. I’m hoping to answer his objections.

Second, I still occasionally get email with questions that come out of things I wrote for Hebrewroot.com between four and ten years ago. That site is no longer under my direct control, and in fact belongs to a ministry that I’m far less involved in than I used to be due to some differences in direction, and while there’s nothing on there that I would be embarrassed to stand behind today, my knowledge has grown quite a bit since I last wrote. Moreover, I’m told by several visitors to that site that it’s raising red flags with their virus protection (which is why I’m not linking it here; since I’m not sure whether they’re false flags or not).

So what I’m going to do is post updated editions of my old material here on the Return of Benjamin, both to preserve the data in the event that Hebrewroot ever goes down, and to give my best foot forward in the ongoing debate on the Torah within the Body of Messiah.

And this most certainly is a debate within the Body. I’ve candidly lost patience with those on both sides who want to make this a salvational issue or who carelessly sling around accusations of heresy. Cris hasn’t done that so far, though his tone is a bit acerbic–doubtless stemming from his own frustrations with those nominally on my side.

Since his first post is so short and focused on a broad theological issue, I’ll go ahead and answer it here:

Confusion About Sunday Worship — Logos Apologia

The Sabbath did not change but the covenant changed and Sabbath observance is part and parcel of the obsolete Mosaic covenant. The Sabbath did not change the covenant did (Heb 8:13).

We agree that there is a new covenant. However, what Cris assumes, but does not prove–at least not in this first post–is that “Sabbath observance is part and parcel of the obsolete Mosaic covenant.” Frankly, there’s no such statement in the New Testament; Cris is reading his particular Christian tradition back into the text rather than doing exegesis from the text, no different than Catholics reading Mary’s exalted status back into the angel’s greeting to her or Muslims reading a prophecy of Mohammed back into Yeshua’s promise that “the Comforter” would come.

Instead, the NT makes it clear that the Sabbath is ongoing. Yeshua, the Son of Man and the one who enacted the New Covenant in the shedding of his own blood, is Lord of the Sabbath (Mat. 12:8). Nice to know that Cris thinks that the Savior is Lord of an obsolete service. Moreover, Yeshua says the Sabbath was given to man, i.e., as a gift, not man to the Sabbath as an onerous religious burden (Mark 2:27). So are we to assume that God intended to impoverish the New Covenant by taking away a blessing? The book of Acts shows that Yeshua’s followers continued to go to synagogue on the Sabbath (Acts 13:14 & 42, 15:21, 16:13, 17:2, 18:4).

Cris claims that Acts 20:7 is proof that the Apostolic Christians worshiped instead on Sunday. Hardly. First, the night “of the first day” would be Saturday night rather than Sunday night because of the way Jews track days, from sundown-to-sundown instead of from midnight-to-midnight. The presence of the lit lamps strongly suggests that this was what we would call a Havdalah (“Separation”) service, marking the close of the Sabbath. It makes sense that the disciples of Yeshua, continuing to go to regular synagogues on the Sabbath, would then join together in a fellowship meal (ala 1Co. 11) after the Sabbath was over.

But even aside from all that, a single mention that on a single occasion a group got together to listen to Paul preach on the first day of the week no more proves that Sunday has supplanted Saturday as the day of rest and worship than the existence of Wednesday night Bible studies proves that Christians today regard Wednesday as the holy day over Sunday!

Cris ends by quoting Justin Martyr. There are some problems with that as well: First, Justin admits that the Jewish followers of Yeshua continued to observe the Sabbath and all the Torah in his own day. Second, Justin was so far afield of the Bible on this subject that he actually claimed that God had given Israel the Sabbaths and the Feasts as a punishment for the hardness of their hearts. That directly contradicts Christ himself on the subject. Third, the last time I checked, Justin Martyr was neither an apostle nor a prophet, and his writings are not canon, nor to be used as canon–for good reason (see point #2).

The most one can claim is that Justin Martyr proves that many, but not all, Christians in the Second Century had taken to worshiping on Sunday instead of the Biblical Sabbath. That proves the relative antiquity of the practice and disproves the idea sometimes raised by HRM-types that Sunday worship was instituted by Constantine. (However, we are right to point out that Constantine was the one who made the Sabbath illegal for Christians, as I’ve shown in Judenrein Christianity.)

Since I’ll be following Cris Putnam’s arguments, I’ll be posting my articles a bit out-of-order, but they’ll all be here and searchable when I’m done. Hopefully, both Cris and I will get some good “sword practice” in and come out arms across each other’s shoulders, whether or not we come to an agreement.

Shalom.

The Curse of the Law: Part 3 – Trying to Put the Pieces Back Together

Josiah

 

First, my apologies for the delay. My wife was sick last week, so I didn’t have my usual night off to write and edit. Hopefully this post will still be welcome.

Though those in Israel with ears to hear knew that the covenant had been broken, they never ceased in trying to put the pieces back together. The first to attempt to do so was Josiah. Even after being told by the prophetess Hulda that he could only delay the outpouring of God’s punishment on Judah, not abate it (2Ki. 22:14-20), Josiah attempted to renew the covenant:

The king went up to the house of the LORD, and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, both small and great: and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the LORD. The king stood by the pillar, and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep his commandments, and his testimonies, and his statutes, with all his heart, and all his soul, to confirm the words of this covenant that were written in this book: and all the people stood to the covenant. . .

Like him was there no king before him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Torah of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him. Notwithstanding, the LORD didn’t turn from the fierceness of his great wrath, with which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocation with which Manasseh had provoked him. (23:2-3, 25-26)

Josiah was the last good king, and the last free king, Judah would ever have until the coming of the Messiah. His successors became vassals to Egypt and Babylon, and after several failed attempts to throw off the yoke of Babylon in defiance of God’s decree, the nation went into exile. While Jeremiah prophesied that there would indeed be a new covenant to replace the broken one, it was not to come about in his day, nor for many centuries after. The curse had begun its course, and could not be stopped until every line of it had been fulfilled. Israel would go into exile.

When the exiles were released from Babylon by the Cyrus the Persian, only about 50,000 saw fit to return to the Land. Under the leadership of Zerubabbel, Joshua, Ezra, and Nehemiah, they rebuilt the temple. The Holy One sent a few prophets during this rebuilding like Haggai, Malachi, and Zechariah to encourage the work to continue, but the result was small and pitiful compared to the beauty of Solomon’s temple (Hag. 2:3). More importantly, all of the spiritual and supernatural graces that made Solomon’s temple and the tabernacle before it true dwelling places for the Presence of the Almighty were gone: “In the Second Temple there wanted the fire from Heaven, the Ark with the Mercy Seat, and cherubim, Urim and Thummim, the Sh’khinah (Divine presence), the Holy Spirit, and the anointing oil.” (Tosefta Ta’anit 6:1, cf. b.Yoma 21b) While a remnant of the exiles had returned, the covenant had not been restored.

When Nehemiah arrived to see to the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls and the restoration of the city, he led the people in a prayer of repentance and in the signing of a covenantal document, a contract as it were, stipulating the duties of the people to support the new temple. Doubtless, he hoped that this new covenant would be the one Jeremiah had prophesied. But again, the curse had not run its course, and the sincere repentance of the small minority in Jerusalem could not turn it back.

The Dead Sea Scroll caves, near Qumran, a city of the Essenes
The Dead Sea Scroll caves, near Qumran, a city of the Essenes

Many of the sects of Judaism continued in the attempt to bring the people back into a state of holiness in the hopes that Hashem would forgive Israel and return the Divine Presence to the temple. Some, like the Essenes, calling themselves the Sons of the Light, withdrew into their own communities and focused solely on raising the level of purity and holiness of their members to the highest level possible so as to be ready to follow the coming Messiah when he arrived. (Ironically, that very Messiah criticized their withdrawal from society; Luke 16:8.) Others, like the Pharisees, attempted to lead the nation into repentance by their example. They attempted to build “fences” around the Torah in the form of their traditions–traditions that continue in Judaism to this day–in the hope that if they built the fences high enough and far enough away from the actual point of sin, Israel could achieved a righteousness sufficient to restore the broken relationship with the Holy One. They were frustrated by the very human failings both within and without their fellowships, particularly the failing of substituting ritual for true faith and faithfulness in the heart, and by the failure to hearken to the voice of the Prophet Moses had promised (Deu. 18:18) and the King that they had wished for and looked for all their lives.

The Real Solution: Faithfulness from Heaven

Paul would later write of these attempts

What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, who didn’t follow after righteousness, attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith; but Israel, following after a law of righteousness, didn’t arrive at a law of righteousness. Why? Because they didn’t seek it by faith, but as it were by works of law. They stumbled over the stumbling stone; even as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and a rock of offense; and no one who believes in him will be disappointed.” (Rom. 9:30-33)

Let’s unpack Paul’s statement for a moment. First, what does Paul mean by “faith”? To answer that, let us look at how he defines the concept in Galatians 3:6 and 11. In verse 6, Paul cites Genesis 15:4, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness,” while in verse 11, he quotes Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by faith.” Actually, that’s a mistranslation: The original Hebrew means, “The righteous shall live by his faithfulness (emunato).” The Greek term translated “faith,” pistis, actually means both “trust” and “faithfulness and loyalty.” By putting those two meanings together, Paul tells us that true “faith” cannot be separated from true loyalty to the object of that faith. As Holding explains:

This now leads to an expansion of the pistis concept as derived from deSilva. As deSilva shows in his book Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity, pp. 95ff], the relationship between the believer and God is framed in terms of an ancient client-patron relationship. As God’s “clients” to whom he has shown unmerited favor (grace), our response should be, as Malina and Neyrey frame it, a “constant awareness” of prescribed duties toward those in whom we are indebted (God) and the group in which we are embedded (God’s kin group, the body of Christ).

This “constant awareness” is the expression of our faithfulness of loyalty — in other words, this is our pistis, or faith. “Faith” is not a feeling, but our pledge to trust, and be reliable servants to, our patron (God), who has provided us with tangible gifts (Christ) and proof thereby of His own reliability. . . Given the above data, the actual description that fits an authentic faith is not a personal relationship, but a patronal relationship. (J.P. Holding,  “What is Faith?” retrieved from http://www.tektonics.org/whatis/whatfaith.php on September 17, 2014)

King-James-BibleSecond, what does Paul mean by “law”? The easy answer is to say, “the Torah,” but this is not correct, or rather, not specific enough. As we will shortly demonstrate, Paul makes a careful distinction between “law” and “the Law” in his writings that is hidden by nearly all translations. In Romans 9:30-33. Paul says that “Israel, following after a law of righteousness, didn’t arrive at a law of righteousness,” he does not actually use the definite “the Law” that indicates the Torah. This indicates that either something in Israel’s pursuit fell short of the true Torah, or that he is using the term “law” as he does in Galatians, to indicate the covenant of the law (or Sinaic covenant). I believe both are true: Israel was still pursuing their relationship with Hashem through the Sinaic covenant by attempting to subsume all of Jewish life into the rigorous keeping of the Torah’s commandments, much as King Josiah had attempted centuries before. However, doing so was impossible because long ago Israel had ceased to keep the covenant faithfully, and had instead overemphasized the “works of law,” the ritual commandments such as circumcision, the Feasts, kashrut, etc. which set the Jew apart from the Gentile. Most call this legalism, but perhaps “ritualism” would be a more descriptive term. This is why Isaiah (chapter 58) decried those who lived unrighteously but who thought that they were right with God because they fasted (probably in reference to Yom Kippur). Indeed, Isaiah’s whole book starts off with a denunciation of ritualism in place of righteous living:

My soul hates your New Moons and your appointed feasts.
They are a burden to me.
I am weary of bearing them.

When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you.
Yes, when you make many prayers, I will not hear.
Your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves, make yourself clean.
Put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes.
Cease to do evil.
Learn to do well.

Seek justice.
Relieve the oppressed.
Judge the fatherless.
Plead for the widow.” (Isa. 1:14-17, cf. Amos 5:21)

So then, we should understand Paul to say,

What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, who didn’t follow after righteousness, attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faithfulness [to Hashem through his Messiah]; but Israel, following after a law of righteousness [by creating traditions to put “fences” around the Torah and emphasizing one’s ritual duties to God], didn’t arrive at a law of righteousness. Why? Because they didn’t seek it by [returning to] faithfulness, but as it were by [ritual] works of [the covenant of] law. They stumbled over the stumbling stone[, not recognizing Yeshua as the King to whom they owed their faithfulness, the only one who could restore Israel’s fellowship with God]; even as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and a rock of offense; and no one who believes in him will be disappointed.” (Rom. 9:30-33)

Therefore, while having departed from idolatry and from many of the sins that led to the exile, Israel of the 1st Century had not yet learned the lesson, a fact not missed by her rabbis. They asked themselves why Hashem had destroyed the Temple and scattered the nation: “But as to the second sanctuary, in which the people were engaged in Torah and practice of the commandments and acts of loving kindness, on what account was it destroyed? It was because of gratuitous hatred. That fact serves to teach you: gratuitous hatred weighs in the balance against the three cardinal sins of idolatry, fornication, and murder” (b.Yoma 9b; cf. John 15:17-19, 25; Psa. 35:19, 69:4).

Christians are hardly immune to the disease of ritualism. Christianity has only two formal, universal sacraments, baptism and communion, and look at the debates on how and when these are to be administered that have raged over the centuries! In addition, Christianity has primarily defined its membership over the centuries not by exhibition of the fruit of the Spirit, but rather by adherence to certain prescribed confessions and creeds. Fleeing from a legalism of works, Christians all to often fall into a legalism of thoughts! (Perhaps we should call this “creedism.”)

Nor has the Messianic movement fared any better. Indeed, we often combine the worst of both worlds, boasting in keeping the “works of law” like the Sabbaths and Feasts while also dismissing those whose theology and doctrine don’t sufficiently comport to our own!

So how then should we understand the New Testament in light of understanding the nature of the curse of the Law? Does this affect our understanding of Paul’s writings, particularly his seeming rejection of the Law as the means of salvation? Indeed it does, as we will see.

The Curse of the Law: Part 2 – Why Yeshua Was Rejected

I concluded the last post by noting, “What this means is that, contrary to common Christian interpretation, the Jewish people were not cursed because we rejected Yeshua. On the contrary, the Jews had already been under the curse of the law for over seven hundred years before Yeshua came. In fact, the rejection of Yeshua by all but a minority of Jews was the result of the curse, not the cause of it!”

Isaiah2Today, I want to expand on that idea.

One of the most often quoted passages from the Tanakh in the New Testament is Isaiah 6:9-10: “He said, “Go, and tell this people, ‘You hear indeed, but don’t understand; and you see indeed, but don’t perceive.’ Make the heart of this people fat. Make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn again, and be healed.” Yeshua quotes it in explaining why he had to explain spiritual matters to the masses only in parables (Mat. 13:14f, Mark 4:12, Luke 8:10, cf. 9:45), while John (12:40) and Luke (Acts 28:26f) invoke it to explain why so few Jews came to believe in him. Isaiah was given this prophecy at the beginning of his ministry, a ministry which tradition holds came to an end when his own uncle, King Manasseh, had him put to death by sawing him in half with a wooden saw (cf. Heb. 11:37). (One cannot help but wonder of Isaiah’s martyrdom was the final straw in the breaking of the covenant, making the death of Yesha’yahu parallel to the death of Yeshua.)

Isaiah was prophetically warned that his words would not be heeded in his lifetime, but when God finally determined the Sinaic covenant to be truly and irrevocably broken on Israel’s end–”my covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them” (Jer. 31:32)–God’s warning to Isaiah became part and parcel of the curse.

“The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35), and the curse specified two separate exiles separated by a nation coming to “besiege you in all your towns” (Deu. 28:52). The first exile had already taken place, and the Apostles knew by Yeshua’s word that the second was soon to come. Had the whole nation accepted Yeshua, all Israel together would have died to the Sinaic covenant and been reborn to the New–and the prophecy of Moses would have been broken.

Of course, it was also Hashem’s plan to use the time of Israel’s punishment to affect a far greater salvation than just one nation: “I ask then, did they stumble that they might fall? May it never be! But by their fall salvation has come to the Gentiles, to provoke them to jealousy. Now if their fall is the riches of the world, and their loss the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fullness?” (Rom. 11:11-12). The phrase “provoke to jealousy” is parazelosai in the Greek, which really means “stimulate alongside” or “[cause] parallel zealousness.” In other words, it’s not a creation of envy, but of a competition in zealousness that would direct the hearts of Israel back to her God and King.

So why then has history not demonstrated the truth of Paul’s prediction? In 1893, H. C. G. Moule answered:

It is the fault, the grievous fault, of us Christians. The narrow prejudice, the iniquitous law, the rigid application of exaggerated ecclesiastical principle, all these things have been man’s perversion of the divine idea, to be confessed and deplored in a deep and interminable repentance. May the mercy of God awaken Gentile Christendom, in a manner and degree as yet unknown, to remember this our indefeasible debt to this people everywhere present with us, everywhere distinct from us; -the debt of a life, personal and ecclesiastical, so manifestly pure and loving in our Lord the Christ as to “move them to the jealousy” which shall claim Him again for their own. Then we shall indeed be hastening the day of full and final blessing, both for themselves and for the world.

Fifteen centuries before, Hashem spoke through the pen of Moses the very prophecy that Paul alludes to in Romans: “They have made me jealous (Heb. qanah, indicating the “heat” of zealousness and passion) with what is not God . . . so I will make them jealous (zealous) with those who are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation” (Deu. 32:21). Those “not a people” refers to the Christians, who are of every nation and yet of none; why then are the Christians then referred to as “a foolish nation” in the parallel clause? The word “foolish,” nabal, usually has the connotation of “wickedness” (cf. v.6; Psa. 14:1; Isa. 32:5). By this parallelism, Hashem teaches us a bitter truth: When the disciples of Yeshua act as those who are not a people, but of all peoples, they provoke Israel to parallel zealousness. But when they take up political power and act foolishly and wickedly, they only stir up Israel’s anger against the King they claim to serve.

JosiahThough those in Israel with ears to hear knew that the covenant had been broken, they never ceased in trying to put the pieces back together. The first to attempt to do so was Josiah. Even after being told by the prophetess Hulda that he could only delay the outpouring of God’s punishment on Judah, not abate it (2Ki. 22:14-20), Josiah attempted to renew the covenant:

The king went up to the house of the LORD, and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, both small and great: and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the LORD. The king stood by the pillar, and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep his commandments, and his testimonies, and his statutes, with all his heart, and all his soul, to confirm the words of this covenant that were written in this book: and all the people stood to the covenant. . .

Like him was there no king before him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Torah of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him. Notwithstanding, the LORD didn’t turn from the fierceness of his great wrath, with which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocation with which Manasseh had provoked him. (23:2-3, 25-26)

Josiah was the last good king, and the last free king, Judah would ever have until the coming of the Messiah. His successors became vassals to Egypt and Babylon, and after several failed attempts to throw off the yoke of Babylon in defiance of God’s decree, the nation went into exile. While Jeremiah prophesied that there would indeed be a new covenant to replace the broken one, it was not to come about in his day, nor for many centuries after. The curse had begun its course, and could not be stopped until every line of it had been fulfilled. Israel would go into exile.

When the exiles were released from Babylon by the Cyrus the Persian, only about 50,000 saw fit to return to the Land. Under the leadership of Zerubabbel, Joshua, Ezra, and Nehemiah, they rebuilt the temple. The Holy One sent a few prophets during this rebuilding like Haggai, Malachi, and Zechariah to encourage the work to continue, but the result was small and pitiful compared to the beauty of Solomon’s temple (Hag. 2:3). More importantly, all of the spiritual and supernatural graces that made Solomon’s temple and the tabernacle before it true dwelling places for the Presence of the Almighty were gone: “In the Second Temple there wanted the fire from Heaven, the Ark with the Mercy Seat, and cherubim, Urim and Thummim, the Sh’khinah (Divine presence), the Holy Spirit, and the anointing oil.” While a remnant of the exiles had returned, the covenant had not been restored.

When Nehemiah arrived to see to the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls and the restoration of the city, he led the people in a prayer of repentance and in the signing of a covenantal document, a contract as it were, stipulating the duties of the people to support the new temple. Doubtless, he hoped that this new covenant would be the one Jeremiah had prophesied. But again, the curse had not run its course, and the sincere repentance of the small minority in Jerusalem could not turn it back.

Many of the sects of Judaism continued in the attempt to bring the people back into a state of holiness in the hopes that Hashem would forgive Israel and return the Divine Presence to the temple. Some, like the Essenes, calling themselves the Sons of the Light, withdrew into their own communities and focused solely on raising the level of purity and holiness of their members to the highest level possible so as to be ready to follow the coming Messiah when he arrived. (Ironically, that very Messiah criticized their withdrawal from society; Luke 16:8.) Others, like the Pharisees, attempted to lead the nation into repentance by their example. They attempted to build “fences” around the Torah in the form of their traditions–traditions that continue in Judaism to this day–in the hope that if they built the fences high enough and far enough away from the actual point of sin, Israel could achieved a righteousness sufficient to restore the broken relationship with the Holy One. They were frustrated by the very human failings both within and without their fellowships, particularly the failing of substituting ritual for true faith and faithfulness in the heart, and by the failure to hearken to the voice of the Prophet Moses had promised (Deu. 18:18) and the King that they had wished for and looked for all their lives.

So if all this is true, the covenant was broken, and it couldn’t be restored by Israel trying to keep it as in the days of Moses, what then could be done?