Per reader Bryan Z’s request, we’re taking a break from responding to SeekGod’s Vicki in order to respond to another article written on the Pyromaniacs blog. The article in question is written by Steven A. Kreloff rather than the blog’s owner, Phil Johnson. Pardon the length; I wanted to answer a whole post in a single post, and these are not simple issues to be addressed.
While the article is very well written, and is instructive for making a very (if I may say so) typically Christian argument against Messianic Judaism. Many of its arguments have been previously refuted on HebrewRoot, and in those cases, I will of course refer readers to the appropriate articles rather than re-invent the wheel. I also suggest that all readers refer to our general article Why the New Covenant Doesn’t Do Away With the Torah for a general overview of arguments in favor of a Torah-observant Body of Messiah.
Kreloff’s opening paragraphs explain exactly what he sees wrong in Messianic Judaism:
A number of years ago, when my son was young, we attended a baseball game. Not only was my son a baseball fan, but he was also an avid collector of baseball cards. When we arrived at the ballpark, though, I noticed that he seemed more interested in looking at the pictures of the players on his cards than in watching the ball players on the field. In my astonishment I asked him, “Why are you looking at the pictures, when the real living players are standing right in front of you?”
What my son did with baseball cards and players, many Jewish Christians today do with their faith. Embracing a concept known as Messianic Judaism, these Jewish believers emphasize Old Testament laws and practices (such as dietary laws, feasts, and Sabbath days) as the way to please God. Yet Paul referred to these kinds of observances as “shadows” pointing to the reality of Jesus Christ (Col. 2:16, 17).
Our fuller response to the argument from Colossians can be found here. To sum it up, I will make two illustrations here. The first is to ask whether Mr. Kreloff keeps a picture of his wife or significant other in his wallet? If so, why? Doesn’t he have the real wife to look upon? And yet he, and most other Americans, keeps pictures of his loved ones as reminders of them and a way of keeping them close as he goes through his day.
In the same way, the Feasts of ADONAI serve as reminders of the Messiah. Consider the first Feast commanded, Passover. It celebrated Israel’s redemption from Egypt. Would we ask why Israel continued to keep Passover after they had already been redeemed? Or do we understand that it served like a picture in the wallet, reminding Israel every year of her great Loved One and how He saved them from bondage? In the same way, Messianics keep Passover as a yearly reminder of our Beloved Lamb, who gave His life to redeem us from bondage to the world—and really, don’t most Christians keep Easter for the same reason?
The second illustration is derived from water immersion, or baptism. As Col. 2:11-12 explains, baptism is symbolic of our dying to our old lives with Yeshua and being raised with Him into a whole new life to be lived in the Spirit. Now, knowing the reason for this “shadow,” how many Christians think that we should cease to keep baptism simply because we have the Messiah, the reality to which the baptism points?
Kreloff continues by stating that Yeshua is superior to the types of the Tanakh that point to Him. We agree completely; that doesn’t in and of itself change whether we should continue to keep God’s commandments. The argument that he alludes to, but doesn’t yet make, from Hebrews is answered here and in my debate with Myles Davis: No part of the Torah was done away with, and only the High Priesthood and sacrifices were transferred to Yeshua.
Kreloff’s next argument is both very typical of mainline Christianity and utterly without Biblical support: “Instead of encouraging these Hebrews to remain within their comfortable religious practices, the inspired penman pleads with them to abandon these customs in favor of loyalty to Jesus Christ.”
Such a thought never entered into the Apostles’ minds, let alone their pens! In Acts 15, the subject of whether Jews should continue to keep the Torah is never even raised; it is considered a given that they would and the question is wholly on how to handle the Gentile converts flooding the synagogues every Sabbath to hear of Yeshua. In Acts 21:20ff, we are told that the tens of thousands of Messianic Jews “are all zealous for the Law,” and that Rabbi Sha’ul, aka the Apostle Paul, took a Nazrite vow with four others and went to the Temple to make sacrifices (v. 26) in order to refute the idea that he was telling Jewish believers “to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (v. 21)! We also refute the argument that the Apostles had ceased to live as Jews that is often made from Galatians here.
Note that without this foundational assumption that the Apostles saw themselves as the forerunners of a new religion rather than as Jews who saw their Judaism made complete (whole) in the Messiah, Kreloff’s entire article falls apart. Note also that Messianic Judaism has long had substantial rebuttal arguments to this assumption, arguments that Mr. Kreloff does not even mention, let alone address. With all respect to Mr. Kreloff, this speaks of a knee-jerk response, not of someone who has carefully studied Messianic Judaism so as to be able to write a viable argument against it—and reflexive opposition has never been an ally to the truth.
A Theological Danger?
Kreloff’s next section begins,
The greatest menace posed by Messianic Judaism is that, by encouraging its followers to diligently observe Old Testament laws, it obscures the foundational truth of Christianity, which is justification by faith in Christ. Though many within this movement are born again and would affirm that their salvation is based upon Christ’s substitutionary atonement, yet their emphasis upon Old Testament ceremonial laws gives the distinct impression that the observing of these laws are necessary for salvation.
A distinct impression to whom? And on what basis? Does simply obeying a command of God automatically imply that one is doing so with the belief that one is working towards his/her salvation?
I assume that Mr. Kreloff opposes adultery and homosexuality, and his faithful to his own wife. Would he accept the argument that by doing so, he “gives the distinct impression that the observing of these laws are necessary for salvation”? He might, at that, but would such a stance in any way diminish Grace? What about the command to be baptized into the Name of the Lord Yeshua? Is doing it in just the right way—whatever way Mr. Kreloff thinks is correct—necessary for salvation?
Obviously, any command can become the basis for a legalistic attitude. Many Christians have killed each other in arguments over baptism in darker times, and even today many Christians condemn those who drink, smoke, listen to the wrong music, etc.—none of which are even part of the Biblical commands! Do these errors mean that mainline Christianity should be considered a “menace”?
Let’s be clear about this: Repentance (turning away from one’s sin) is necessary for salvation:
This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. (1Jn. 1:5-10)
Does this mean that someone who sins unintentionally and doesn’t realize it is condemned? Not at all—the sacrifice clearly covers sins of ignorance (Lev. 4:2ff, Heb. 9:7). This is one reason why the Apostles did not see keeping the Torah as a prerequisite for salvation, and instead only laid down four basic laws that would separate the Gentile converts from paganism (see again our article on Acts 15). However, it does mean that just as the Israelites who sinned out of ignorance and then came to realize it were responsible for repenting from that sin and making the appropriate sacrifice, those of us in Messiah who find out that we have not been keeping one of His commands because we didn’t know about it or didn’t know that it applied to us are likewise responsible for thereafter keeping the command and relying on Yeshua’s sacrifice to cover us.
So then, do I believe that we who are in Messiah should continue to keep His Feasts and other “Jewish” commandments? Absolutely. Do I see it as a matter of salvation? Absolutely not. Since we are indeed saved by faith, we can afford to honestly disagree about the interpretation of certain passages of Scripture.
I trust that clarifies the erroneous “impression” Mr. Kreloff has. On to his next objection:
Indeed, there are some within the messianic movement who teach that Jewish believers are obligated to observe all the Old Testament laws. They would in fact associate their salvation with keeping these laws.
For the former, yes, on the basis (Acts 21) already given. For the latter, who is Kreloff claiming takes this position?
Kreloff next argues from Galatians as a whole We’ve previously touched on this in part, but have not yet finished a full article on Galatians as a whole. While our previously cited articles address Kreloff’s specific points, let us take a moment to address the specific points he makes here:
He called their rejection of grace for law “a different gospel” (1:6) and a distortion of the gospel of Christ (1:7).
This is true. However, the issue was neither one of Jewish believers remaining Jewish nor even of Gentile believers keeping the commands of the Torah. Rather, the issue, per Acts 15:1 & 6, was that circumcision (being Jewish) and keeping the Torah were being distorted into prerequisites for salvation and fellowship. As I pointed out in my debate with Myles Davis,
In fact, it was to combat this then-prevailing rabbinic error that the Apostles forbade Gentile believers to circumcise, as explained before. The command to be made righteous by trusting in God alone (Gen. 15:6) preceded (both chronologically and in importance) the command to be circumcised (Gen. 17). So long as the misperception ruled that one had to be circumcised to be saved, and to be circumcised meant to become a Jew, the two were in conflict.
In order to preserve both the true way of salvation as commanded by the Torah—by faith—and to preserve God’s promise to call Gentiles—not just proselytized Jews—by His Name, the Apostles had to put the command of faith ahead of the command of circumcision. They did not annul the Torah by so doing: They actually preserved and upheld it according to its true meaning!
Note that the emphasis against circumcision was meant to be a general rule, not an absolute prohibition; otherwise, Paul damned both Timothy and himself by circumcising the young Greek (Acts 16:3; note that this was many centuries before the rabbis ceased to trace one’s ancestry through the father).
So long as justification by faith, just as our father Abraham was, is kept foremost in mind as the reason for doing good works (cf. Eph. 2:8-10), there is no contradiction between faith and works. Let me repeat again: I do not seek to keep the Torah in order to be saved; I seek to keep it because I am saved, and I want to be like my Savior in every way.
A Ecclesiological Danger?
Kreloff’s next objection is, to put it plainly, nonsensical:
One of the great truths of the New Testament is that the Body of Christ is made up of both Jews and Gentiles. It is an unbiblical concept to have a local church that is distinctively Jewish or Gentile (by necessity the early church in Jerusalem consisted of all Jews because the Gospel had not been presented to the Gentile world). Thus, the nature of messianic synagogues—with their unique Jewish distinctions—violates the very spirit of fellowship among believers of all backgrounds and cultures.
If it is unbiblical to have a local church that is distinctively Gentile, then by definition virtually every church in the world is unbiblical! Would Kreloff argue that having a church with a distinctly American culture—as his doubtless is, though he may be so immersed in our culture as to not notice it—is a violation of Scripture? What about a church with a distinctly Chinese flavor? Hispanic? African? What exactly is wrong with having a church with a particular cultural tradition?
And if one may have a Biblical church with a distinctive American, Chinese, Hispanic, or African cultural tradition, exactly on what basis can one object to an assembly with a distinct Jewish cultural tradition?
Of course, this “any culture but Jewish” attitude in the Ekklesia goes back a long way, with Jews who wanted to worship a Jewish Messiah being forced to take oaths to give up everything Jewish about their heritage, as Dan Juster documents in an article on our home site. Even today, Jews who come to the Messiah in a Sunday church are nearly always pressured to become “uncircumcised” in direct violation of 1Co. 7:18 and Acts 21. “You know Jesus now? Congratulations! Here, have a ham sandwich. What? Don’t you know that only the weak in faith keep kosher?” etc.
That being the case, it’s hardly surprising that Messianics would rather a new Jewish believer come to one of our synagogues. It’s not a matter of forcible separation on our part—it’s a matter of not wanting to help with the assimilation of the Jewish people into a Gentile culture. It may be objected that Christians aren’t assimilating Jews, but “completing” them. Not true. According to Paul in Romans 2:25, a Jew who ceases to keep the Torah becomes a Gentile for all practical purposes: “For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.”
Fortunately, we are seeing a shift in the above situation: Many evangelical churches today are discovering a new respect for the Jewish culture which gave them the Bible, and are encouraging the Jews in their midst to keep to that culture. However, that shift is coming about precisely because there is such a thing as Messianic Judaism and the Hebrew Roots movement.
By encouraging messianic synagogues, Messianic Judaism promotes division in the Body of Christ that is contrary to the teachings of the New Testament.
Tell me, does having Baptists, Presbyterians, Evangelicals, etc. promote division in the Body of Messiah, or should we all go back to being Roman Catholic in the name of unity? If one supports the right of different denominations to develop with their own (Biblically-defined, one would hope) cultures, liturgy, songs, order of service, etc., on what basis can one object to Messianic Judaism as one among many?
Are we seeing the pattern here? Isn’t Mr. Kreloff saying again (however unintentionally, as I’m sure it is), “Different church cultures are fine—just as long as they aren’t Jewish!” How did we, who are the inheritors of a Jewish Messiah whose Name and teachings were passed on by wholly Jewish Apostles ever come to such a theological (as opposed to personal) anti-Semitism?
Simple: By a misuse of Galatians compounded by centuries of human tradition. Galatians does not override Acts 21, or the book of Romans, or 1Co. 7, or any of the other innumerable places where Paul affirmed that there was still value to being Jewish and keeping the Torah—let alone our true Master’s own command that even the least of the Torah should be kept (Mat. 5:17-19)!
Tell me, Mr. Kreloff, since you have cited Gal. 3:28 as stating that Jewish believers should not continue to live as Jews, does this passage also annul Paul’s own teaching on separate responsibilities for men and women, per 1Co. 11:3-10, for example? Does this passage mean that homosexuality is now permitted, since there is no difference between male and female? Of course not! The point of the passage is that all have equal access to the Messiah and God’s grace regardless of their birth, not that all distinctions have been completely destroyed!
Paul himself states, “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:1-2). Is Paul schizophrenic on the issue? Or have we perhaps misunderstood his writings, as happened even in his own day (cf. 1Pt. 3:16)? Perhaps it is time to stop building our theology wholly upon Paul (and that out-of-context), and build it instead on the whole of Scripture.
If Mr. Kreloff is really concerned about Jews going to Messianic synagogues and “robbing” the Sunday churches of their richness, perhaps he should abandon an anti-Jewish, anti-Torah theology which drives them there. He should also recognize that just as he goes to an American church as opposed to a Korean church because of his cultural preference, the Messianic Jew has the same freedom in the Messiah.
An Evangelistic Danger?
Kreloff starts his next section,
Adherents to Messianic Judaism believe that those identified with messianic synagogues make better witnesses to Jewish people than Gentiles from a Bible believing local church. However, the Apostle Paul told the Romans that his goal in ministering to so many Gentiles (he was the Apostle to the Gentiles) was to provoke Jewish people to jealousy (Romans 11:14). In other words, he felt that the best way to arouse Jewish interest in the gospel was through Gentile Christians. When Jewish people observe Gentile believers having a relationship with the Jewish Messiah and loving their Jewish Bibles, they often are provoked to a jealousy that eventually leads them to Christ.
Likewise, when Jewish people observe Jew and Gentile worshipping together in a Messianic synagogue, following the Messiah by keeping the Torah, their jealousy is aroused that much more.
Let me share a true story: I know a family in which the mother’s mother is Jewish. For years, she has resented her son-in-law because she saw him as tearing her daughter away from her Jewish heritage. From a very young age, she had adopted the philosophy, “I was born a Jew, and I’ll die a Jew,” which made her completely resistant to Gentile Christianity.
Since her family started attending our synagogue and her daughter has returned to her Jewish roots, her attitude towards her son-in-law and Yeshua have softened considerably. Her jealousy for her heritage has indeed been provoked, but it wasn’t by Gentile Christianity—it was by her daughter and granddaughter’s Messianic Judaism.
What Kreloff fails to appreciate is that when Paul penned those words, he was living in a time when Gentile believers were coming into the Jewish synagogues (Acts 13-14) and learning the Torah (Acts 15:21) to hear of the Messiah. They were a sub-culture within Judaism, a sect (Acts 24:5 & 14, 28:22), not a separate religion. In such a position, they could indeed provoke the Jews to jealousy by showing an enormous love to each other, displaying their Spiritual gifts, and speaking of a Messiah who encapsulated the whole Torah—but as a separate religion which rejected even her own Jewish members (as long as they remained distinctively Jewish) and who rejected the Torah, we don’t provoke this jealousy—the vigilant guardianship of something we own or have a special relationship with. Does a man feel jealousy over his wife when he sees his friend with a different woman?
While it’s true that most Jews who have come to faith in Messiah have done so by my Sunday-brethren’s efforts. That’s hardly surprising just as a matter of numbers and time—Messianic Judaism has only really begun to spread in the last 20 years, and there are perhaps a million in us in the world as opposed to billions of professing Christians.
I don’t know many Messianics who would lose that advantage of numbers and time in reaching our Jewish brothers and sisters with the Gospel. Our concern is wholly with which way our Gentile brethren will influence new Jewish believers after they come to faith in a Jewish Messiah: Will they encourage them to maintain their Jewish culture, or tell them to stop keeping the Torah and become as Gentiles? If the latter, then they are in violation of Paul’s own writings as well as the Tanakh and Yeshua’s teachings.
Jewish believers do indeed offer so much to the Body of Messiah. Unfortunately, for most of the last 2000 years, we have rejected their gifts in the name of conformity and a terrible misreading of Paul’s writings. Messianic Judaism represents a reversal of this tragedy, a movement where Jews and Gentiles together can learn the full Jewishness of the Messiah and the Bible, and in turn use what we have learned by living to edify our brothers and sisters in Christ.