Historical Perspective Affects New Testament Interpretation

time for the Church to reconsider

In interpreting Biblical texts, people often look to “Church tradition” for some guidance, which for many theological concepts can be helpful — however in the context of understanding God’s plan for the Jews, the early Church’s historical perspective itself affected its understanding.  That is the topic of this article.

The Jerusalem Council – example of the Jewish Perspective

As discussed in previous articles, what we know as the “Church” began as a Jewish movement; the disciples were Jews and almost all of the early followers of Jesus were Jews.  When Gentiles began to believe in Jesus, the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 met to decide whether they would need to undergo circumcision and follow the Law of Moses – becoming proselytes to Judaism. The decision of the Council was that the Gentile Christians were to continue to follow the same protocol set out for Gentiles living amongst Jews under the Law of Moses, as specified in Leviticus 17 & 18 and (1) abstain from things polluted by idols (2) from sexual immorality (3) from eating anything that has been strangled and (4) from blood. (Acts 15:20).  At this time in Church history, it is evident that the point of reference for Church decisions was the Law.

The Transition

But what began as a movement amongst Jews and then a movement led by Jews (the Apostles) but populated by Gentiles became a movement led and populated by Gentiles after the death of the Apostles.  As a result, the historical perspective of the Church changed.  Let’s explore this a bit…

Synods of the Early Church – example of a Gentile Perspective

As covered in earlier article, both Jewish believers and Gentile Christians at Jerusalem and Antioch (including Polycarp, a Church Father) continued to commemorate the death of Jesus at the same time as the Jewish feast of Passover (i.e. on the 14th of Nisan on the Jewish calendar) as they say they learned from the Apostle John. From a Jewish historical perspective this made sense, as the “last supper” took place during the Passover Seder (or meal). To the rest of the Church in other parts of the Empire however,  who had little or no contact with Jewish customs and traditions it did not.  Early-on the rest of the Church had moved the commemoration of the Lord’s death to the first Sunday after Passover, to tie it to the day Jesus rose from the dead and called the holiday “Easter”.

In the last decade of the second century a number of synods were convened to deal with what had become a significant ‘controversy’ in the Church; the fact that the Church at Jerusalem and Antioch were continuing to commemorate the death of Jesus in association with the Jewish Passover on the 14th of Nisan.  The outcome of these synods was a Church ruling that the celebration of Easter was to be observed exclusively on the first Sunday  following Passover. Furthermore, for the believers in Jerusalem and Antioch to continue to commemorate the Lord’s death on the Passover was considered heresy.  As a result of this decision,  the commemoration of the Lord’s death on the Passover by the Church had completely disappeared around the time of the First Ecumenical Council, held in 325 at Nicaea — to be ever replaced by the celebration of Easter on a Sunday.

Historical Perspective  and Current Events

Historical perspective, then as now informs how current events are understood, which in turn impacts what we believe.

When the Church was largely Jewish, the coming to faith of the Gentiles was understood within the context of what the Tanakh (Old Testament) said in that regard.  Gentile Christians were seen as having been grafted into the commonwealth of Israel and were considered as Israel’s multinational extension. 

The concept of supersessionism (also known as “replacement theology”; the belief that the Church replaces Israel) would have made absolutely no sense to these new Gentile Christians because it was evident for all to see that the Church was largely comprised of Jews.  Paul himself was a Jew, “a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.” (Romans 11:1) and as he taught “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew” (Romans 11:2).  To the writers of the New Testament, the idea of a purely Gentile Church existing itself without an identifiable Jewish contingent was inconceivable.

After the death of the Apostles, when the Jewish nucleus of the Church had disappeared, the Church’s theology about the Jews began to change — which given the events around them is understandable.  Gentile Christians saw the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the end of Temple worship, the eradication of the priesthood and the land that had been given to the Jews by God was now overrun by the Romans.  From their historical perspective, it appeared that the Jewish way of life was also destined for extinction.  Where once Gentiles saw themselves as the multinational extension of physical Israel, they began to see themselves as “spiritual Israel”.

Contrary to the second and third century theological assumption, the Jewish people and Judaism did not cease to exist. By the fourth and fifth century,  the Jews survival according to Augustine was to serve as a witness to God’s judgement on sin. This perpetuated the belief that the Jews were spiritually bankrupt and without a future.

Historic perspective resulted in the prospering of the Gentile Church being seen as a work of God — but not the prospering of the Jewish people.

Paul Van Buren, in his book A Theology of the Jewish-Christian Reality addresses this very issue;

The question which confronts us now is whether we shall continue to see the one and not the other and thus continue to give our traditional answer that the church has displaced the people of Israel as God’s people and we alone are those whose manner of walking is the only one in which God’s way can be walked.”

Contrary to all expectations, the Jews did not cease to exist in 70 CE. Despite pogroms and the Crusades, the Jews survived the Middle Ages (500 – 1750 CE), survived the First World War and despite the continued attempts to eradicate us, we survived.  During the Holocaust, six million of the world’s 16.6 million Jews were gassed to death in a concerted effort to destroy us — and still we did not cease to exist as a people.  Despite God’s clear and continued hand in the survival of the Jewish people, the Church, having arrived early-on at a theology where they were the “new Israel”, the Jews and whether they lived or perished, were considered irrelevant. In their mind, the Jewish people had broken their covenant with God and therefore were no different than any other people.

The survival of the Jewish people should serve as irrefutable testimony to God’s faithfulness to His Word — of Him being a God that does what He says He will do.

God said the covenant that He made with the Jewish people.was an everlasting covenant;


“I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. “I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”

Genesis 17:7-8


In fact, in the very same chapter in Jeremiah that God promises to give the New Covenant, He also reiterates His covenant with the Jews.  God says that He will sooner break His covenant with the day and the night and that the planets and stars will cease to have an order in the heavens, than He will reject the seed of Jacob.

The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah:  “Have you not noticed what these people have said? They say, ‘The Lord has rejected the two families He had chosen.’ My people are treated with contempt and no longer regarded as a nation among them. This is what the Lord says: If I do not keep My covenant with the day and with the night and fail to establish the fixed order of heaven and earth,  then I might also reject the seed of Jacob and of My servant David—not taking from his descendants rulers over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Instead, I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them.”

Jeremiah 33: 23-26

The Scripture was very clear what the punishment would be for the Jewish people breaking their covenant with God. If the Jews obeyed His commands, He promises that they will be safe in the land and He would meet all their needs for provision;

you will have plenty of food to eat and live securely in your land. I will give peace to the land, and you will lie down with nothing to frighten you.”

~Leviticus 26: 4-6

And if the Jews did not obey His commands He was very clear what the punishment would be; He would scatter them among the nations.

“I will reject you. I will reduce your cities to ruins and devastate your sanctuaries. I will not smell the pleasing aroma of your sacrifices. I also will devastate the land, so that your enemies who come to live there will be appalled by it. But I will scatter you among the nations, and I will draw a sword to chase after you. So your land will become desolate, and your cities will become ruins.”

~Leviticus 26: 30-33

God promised and swore by Himself that the Jews would forever exists as a people and that the land He gave them would always be their possession.  The very fact that the Jews continue to exist at all is due to God being faithful to His word. He said the covenant He made with us was everlasting and He has continued through the millennia to demonstrate that to be true.

Historical Perspective – misinterpreting the “signs of the times”

As mentioned above, it is understandable that the Gentile Church arrived at the conclusion that the Jews and Judaism would cease to exist, given they witnessed the razing of Jerusalem, the destruction of Temple and the scattering of the Jews throughout the known world.  To conclude they were “spiritual Israel” was a way of making sense of what they witnessed in light of what the Scriptures said. The problem was it failed to take God at His Word.  God was very clear in Genesis that the eternal covenant was with a specific people; the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The promise He gave to Abraham was repeated to Isaac and again repeated to Jacob.  By the Church seeing themselves as “spiritual Israel”, they failed to accurately understand the “signs of the times”. By continuing to hold to the view that God was finished with the Jews, they also failed to realize God’s Hand when the Jews were returned to the Land in 1948. God was doing with the Jewish people exactly what He said He would do…and sadly, much of the Church missed the significance.

The Law of Moses said that after God scattered us and exiled us from the land, that when the Jews came to their senses in the nations where He had scattered us, He would bring us back:

“When all these things happen to you—the blessings and curses I have set before you—and you come to your senses while you are in all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and all your soul by doing everything I am giving you today,  then He will restore your fortunes, have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. Even if your exiles are at the ends of the earth, He will gather you and bring you back from there. The Lord your God will bring you into the land your fathers possessed, and you will take possession of it. He will cause you to prosper and multiply you more than He did your fathers.”

~ Deuteronomy 30:1-5

This is exactly what happened after the Jews were scattered in the Assyrian and Babylonian exile.

The Church should have recognized that what was occurring in 1948 was exactly what God said He would do, but those that failed to recognize the everlasting nature of God’s covenant with Israel, missed it.

God said that He would gather the remnant of His people a second time. The Church’s theological assumptions and historic perspective resulted in them being unable to recognize God’s hand at work, bringing to pass exactly what He spoke beforehand;

“On that day the root of Jesse

will stand as a banner for the peoples.

The nations will seek Him,

and His resting place will be glorious.

On that day the Lord will extend His hand a second time to recover—from Assyria, Egypt, Pathros, Cush, Elam, Shinar, Hamath, and the coasts and islands of the west—the remnant of His people who survive.

He will lift up a banner for the nations

and gather the dispersed of Israel;

He will collect the scattered of Judah

from the four corners of the earth.”

~Isaiah  11:11-12

God bringing the Jews back into the Land a second time should have served “as a banner to the nations” [the Gentiles} — solid, irrefutable evidence that God keeps His promises.  God said in Ezekiel 20  that after Israel has served idols instead of Him and defiled His Holy Name, that He would bring them back to the Land because of His Name and not according to our rebellious ways. God continues to deal with Israel ‘because of His Name’.  It would seem to me that when the Church fails to recognize God’s dealing with the Jews that they fail to give Him the honour and glory that He is due.

Looking at what Paul says in Romans 11:11-15 from this same historical perspective one notices that not once but twice Paul refers to the future salvation of Israel;

I ask, then, have they stumbled in order to fall? Absolutely not! On the contrary, by their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling brings riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion bring! Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. In view of the fact that I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if I can somehow make my own people jealous and save some of them. For if their rejection brings reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?”

~ Romans 11:11-15

Paul refers to the future salvation of Israel twice; first in the phrase “now if their stumbling brings riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion bring!” and in case we missed that, he adds “for if their [the Jews] rejection brings reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?”

Full inclusion of the Jews was something the Apostle Paul expected. He was unequivocal that it was the rejection of the Jews that brought reconciliation to the Gentiles and that there is coming a time where Jewish acceptance will be “as life from the dead”.

In conclusion, the Early Church Father’s historical perspective impacted what they believed about the Jews. Many saw the beliefs of the Pharisees as being representative of “the Jews” as a whole; failing to take into account that they were just one of the sects of Jews at the time and thus took the position that Jesus did in His dealing with the Pharisees and applied it to the whole nation of Israel.  Since the Early Church Fathers saw the destruction of the second temple and the razing of Jerusalem led many to conclude that God had rejected the Jews because they had rejected Jesus as Messiah.  This view was carried down through Church history resulting in the theological position that any suffering that the Jews experienced was incurred by God’s rejection of them.  We will elaborate more on what the Church Fathers believed in a future article, but suffice to say that if one looks to “Church tradition” for guidance on understanding texts dealings with God’s promises to the Jewish people, it will come with this tainted historical perspective.

If one compares what has occurred in history with what God said He would do in Scripture one cannot fail to see His faithfulness to His promises to the Jewish people.  As He said He would do, He always spared a remnant. He brought us back to the land — not once, but twice — because of His Name. Full inclusion of the Jews was something the Apostle Paul expected and should be the Church’s expectation, as well — because He is faithful.  Paul said it clearly that the Jews being unfaithful in no way nullified the faithfulness of God;

So what advantage does the Jew have? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?  Considerable in every way. First, they were entrusted with the spoken words of God.  What then? If some did not believe, will their unbelief cancel God’s faithfulness?  Absolutely not!

~Romans 3:1-4

In fact, he said (:5) that the Jews unrighteousness highlights God’s righteousness. 

God’s faithfulness to His promises to the Jews should serve as great encouragement to the Church — that we can trust in His promises because He always keeps His word.


Kinzer, Mark S, 2005, Post Missionary Messianic Judaism – Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People, Brazos Press

 

Jesus – a Prophet like Moses

Yeshua with torah

 

The Old Testament contains hundreds of prophecies about the Messiah; where He would be born, His lineage, what He would accomplish, how He would die.  We also know that He would be a king like David (Jeremiah 23:5-6), a priest like Melchizedek (Ps 110:4) and a prophet like Moses (Deut 18: 15-19). This article is about what it means for Jesus as ‘Prophet like Moses’.

What did Moses Say about Jesus?

Moses is one of the most revered figures in Judaism as he is the one that God chose to give the Torah (Law) to at Mount Sinai. The “Torah” is the first five books in what Christians call the Old Testament – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

To believe Moses” means to believe what he wrote.

Jesus said to the Jews that did not believe in Him that if they really believed Moses, they would believe Him;

“For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, because he wrote about Me. But if you don’t believe his writings, how will you believe My words?” (John 5:46).

The Old Testament is so full of references to Jesus that He taught the disciples about Himself from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets on the road to Emmaus;

“He said to them, “How unwise and slow you are to believe in your hearts all that the prophets have spoken! Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:25-27)

Moses said that God would send a prophet like himself and that we must listen to him — in fact says that if we don’t listen, God will hold us accountable;


The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. This is what you requested from the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, ‘Let us not continue to hear the voice of the Lord our God or see this great fire any longer, so that we will not die!’ Then the Lord said to me, ‘They have spoken well. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. I will put My words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. I will hold accountable whoever does not listen to My words that he speaks in My name. (Deut 18: 15-19)


Jesus was the Prophet like Moses that God raised up

There were many parallels between Moses and Jesus; as infants both Moses and Jesus were almost killed by ruler’s edicts and both were protected from harm, both spent their early years in Egypt, both cured lepers (Num 12:10-15; Matt. 8:2-3) and both were initially doubted in their roles by their siblings. Moses lifted up the brazen serpent to deliver those that had faith and Jesus was lifted up on the cross to deliver all who would have faith.  Moses appointed 70 elders to rule Israel (Num. 11:16-17); Jesus appointed 70 disciples to teach the nations (Luke 10:1, 17). But the most striking comparison between Jesus and Moses was that they were both prophets that taught the Law of God. 

Yes, Jesus like Moses taught the Law — the true meaning and practice of the Law as given by God.  As a Prophet, He was calling the Jews back to the Law as God gave it, rather than what the Pharisees had made it.  More on that below.

The Standard of the Prophet

As a Prophet, Jesus had to meet the same criteria that God set for all prophets; that is to uphold what God has said or be put to death.

This ought not to be overlooked.  Prophets in the Old Testament were to be put to death if what they said did not come to pass or if what they taught caused the people to stray from the way God had already spoken.

The standard for a prophet is spelled out in the Law of Moses;


“If a prophet or someone who has dreams arises among you and proclaims a sign or wonder to you, and that sign or wonder he has promised you comes about, but he says, ‘Let us follow other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us worship them,’ do not listen to that prophet’s words or to that dreamer. For the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul. You must follow the Lord your God and fear Him. You must keep His commands and listen to His voice; you must worship Him and remain faithful to Him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he has urged rebellion against the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the place of slavery, to turn you from the way the Lord your God has commanded you to walk. You must purge the evil from you.” (Deut 13: 1-5)


The Teachings of Jesus and the Law

Some people believe that the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament teach something different than what is taught in the Law of Moses or that He gave them new meaning or disregarded the Law; even breaking some of its commands. Finally, others would say Jesus fulfilled the Law and therefore the Law is no longer relevant. Let’s look at each of those a bit closer;

1.  Some people believe that the teachings of Jesus were very different than what was taught in the Old Testament; that the Old Testament was all about the law and the New Testament is all about grace. This idea is worth an article in itself at very least, but let’s look at this idea in terms of what Deuteronomy 13 says. If Jesus taught something different (e.g. grace) than what God had previously taught (e.g. Law), then He would have been leading us away from keeping God’s commands and this would have made Him a false prophet, deserving of death.

2.  Others say that Jesus gave ‘new meaning‘ to what was taught in the Old Testament but this too would have made Him a false prophet. If Jesus reinterpreted the Law of Moses, He would have been urging us to rebellion against the Lord and His commands and we would have been just to put Him to death.

3.  Still others say that Jesus broke all kinds of commands in the Law of Moses and often cite Him healing on the Sabbath as a common example. Jesus did not follow the “Oral Law” of the Pharisees and thus in their minds would have been viewed as breaking the Sabbath, but no where in Scripture are there any instances of Him violating any of the commands of the (Written) Law, as recorded in the Law of Moses. Furthermore, if Jesus had indeed broken the Law of Moses — the Law given by God, He would have committed a sin and no longer been the Lamb of God without blemish.

4.  Finally, others say Jesus fulfilled the Law and therefore the Law is no longer relevant. Jesus as the Prophet like Moses was calling the Jews back to a true observance of the Law of which He is the goal (Romans 10:4).  Some translations use the word “end” for goal, but the word in Greek [telios] is more clearly understood in the context of Romans 10 as goal.  We will go into this passage more in upcoming blogs, but in this context, Paul is referring to the Jews as disregarding the righteousness from God and attempting to establish their own righteousness.  Again, this refers to the Pharisees insistence that the observance of “Oral Law” (i.e. ‘the traditions of men’) are equivalent in authority to the Written Law — which is the Law of God.  Paul says that they [the Jews] have not submitted themselves to God’s righteousness [as embodied in the Law] — of whom Christ is the goal.


Note: In an upcoming article, Daniel and I will elaborate on the role of the Law to reflect the righteousness of God and the justice of God, suffice to say here, Jesus is the goal of the Law in that He is the perfect embodiment of the righteousness and justice of God.


None of the teachings of Jesus recorded anywhere in the New Testament teach something new or different than what is taught in the Law of Moses and at no time does Jesus ever break the commands of the Law, as given by God. In the following examples, we demonstrate that Jesus considered the Law not only relevant to teach, but to exhort believers to practice.

Jesus upholds the Law

Here are four examples as to how Jesus, as the Prophet like Moses, upholds the Law of Moses;

1. Jesus and the Rich Young Man

The synoptic gospels record the conversation between Jesus and the rich young man who wanted to know how to inherit eternal life.

Jesus could have simply replied “follow Me” but He doesn’t.  He reminds the man of the commandments of God in the Law forbidding adultery, murder, stealing, bearing false witness and honouring one’s parents (Mark 10:17-22; Matt 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30).  Jesus upholds the Law.

It was when the young man said that he had kept these commands from the time he was a youth that Jesus said to sell all he had, distribute it to the poor and follow Him (Luke 18:18-23, Mt 19:19-21, Mark 10:17-21).  Jesus continues to uphold the Law in His reply by telling the man to sell all his possessions. He was pointing out that money had become an idol to the man which kept him from keeping the first two commandments; which is to have the Lord as our God and no other gods before Him, and not to make an idol — which money had become to the man.  Jesus upholds the Law all the way through this teaching.

2. Jesus and the Jewish Lawyer 

In the conversation between Jesus and a Jewish lawyer recorded by Mark and Matthew, the issue of which is the greatest of the 613 commandments came up.

A question had arisen among the Jews and was now put to Jesus as to which commandment was ‘the first of all’ (Mark 12:28), or ‘the greatest’ (Matt 22:34) — first and greatest both referring to the same thing.

In Matthew’s and Mark’s account (Mark 12:31, Matt 22:39), Jesus replies to the Jewish lawyer saying that ‘the greatest and first commandment’ was to love God with all your heart, soul and strength (Deut 6:5) and adds  ‘the second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18).  Jesus upholds the Law.


It is important to note that neither of the two greatest commandments are part of the Ten Commandments (outlined in Exodus 20, Deut. 5) but are from other parts of the Law of Moses — which consists of 613 commandments and not just ten! The ten commandments form the functional framework for the other 603 commandments of the Mosaic Law.

The first greatest commandment quoted by Jesus in Mark’s account, includes what is called the “Shema“;

Hear O Israel the Lord our God the Lord is One (Deut 6:4)

and in the account in Matthew, Jesus refers only to “the V’Hafta” — a continuation of the Shema, but it is implied in the context that Jesus is including the Shema.  The V’Hafta is:

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength (Deut 6:5)

The Shema and the V’Haftah were recited daily by Jews and still are.

The second greatest commandment is also one of the 613 commandments in the Law of Moses and does not, as one might assume, only refer to other Jews as “neighbours“;

You must not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people but you must love your neighbour as yourself . (Leviticus 19:18)

It is very important to note here, that in this same section of Leviticus 19, ‘foreigners living among you‘ (i.e. Gentiles) are included as “neighbour”;

The foreigner who lives among you [Gentile] must be to you as one of your native born, so you shall love him as yourself because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 19:33-34)


The Law of Moses included Gentiles as “neighbours” and in His teaching on the two greatest commandments, Jesus upholds the Law of Moses.

3. Jesus and the Jewish Lawyer and the Parable of the Good Samaritan

Luke records a fuller account of the same conversation between Jesus and the Jewish Lawyer.  In this account, the ‘expert in the law‘ stood up to test Jesus asking Him ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Luke 10:25-28).  

Here, Jesus asks the expert in the law what he himself understands the Law of Moses to say on this matter and it is the lawyer who cites the Shema and V’Hafta and the teaching of the Law of Moses in Leviticus 19 about loving our neighbor.  The lawyer replies to Jesus and says that it is the obligation to love God above all and to love one’s neighbour as oneself (Luke 10:25-27) — to which Jesus replies, “you have answered correctly” and adds “Do this and you will live”.  Once again, Jesus upholds the law.

It was the lawyer’s next question: ‘But who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10:28-37) that leads to Jesus’ teaching of the Parable of the Good Samaritan where Jesus refers back to the passages above from Leviticus 19, where the Jews under the Law are commanded in the Law of Moses to love the Gentile as if he were a native-born Jew and to treat them as neighbours.  

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus upholds the law.

3. Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount

The end of Matthew 4 gives the context for Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5. Jesus was speaking to the Jews that followed Him to the mount from “all over Galilee”  in the synagogues (Matt 4:23) and “from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan” (Matt 4: 25).

Contrary to what many assume, the Sermon on the Mount is not a new teaching given to the Church but is an elaboration by Jesus to Jews on the Ten Commandments.

Jesus in the body of the Sermon says “You have heard it was said [in the Old Testament] but I say…“– such references to the Law of Moses which would have had no meaning to Gentiles. The Jews to whom Jesus was speaking heard the Law read each week in the synagogues from where they came and knew exactly what He was referring to when He said;


“Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.  For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17 – 19


Jesus said that He did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them and that until heaven and earth pass away, not even the tiniest part of the smallest letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished — and that hasn’t happened yet.  As covered in another article, God has yet to restore the Jewish people and will do so when “the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled“.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus  not only upholds the Law but speaks of the Law’s continued relevance and practice to Jews in the kingdom. Jesus says;


anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:17-19)


Jesus, was exhorting the Jews that had followed him there from all over the region to not to set aside the commands of God but to practice and teach them.

This is what prophets in the Jewish Scriptures did; they called the people back to the ways of God. Jesus, as a Prophet was doing exactly the same thing.

Further, Jesus as the Prophet like Moses, was calling the Jews back to the Law of Moses as it was given by God at Mount Sinai.

Why  was that necessary?

The Pharisees (who Jesus had rather strong words for!) had been burdening the Jews with all kinds of extra observances that are referred to as “Oral Torah” (also called the “Oral Law”).  The Pharisees believed that these interpretations on how to observe the Written Law were given by God Himself to Moses at Mount Sinai along with the “Written Torah” (also called the “Written Law”) and that “Oral Law” was equal in authority to the “Written Law” of Moses.

Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah in context when He said that the Pharisees and scribes were “teaching as doctrines the commands of men” (Matt 15:9).  Looking at the passage in Isaiah 29:32 in Hebrew; Isaiah refers to the “mitzvah of learned men“, rather than the “mitzvah of God“. Jesus is quoting the Law in context; it was the burdensome “Oral Law” that Jesus was equating with the “mitzvah of learned men” that the Pharisees and scribes were teaching, rather than the “mitzvah of God“. It was the Oral Law Jesus was condemning — not the written Law of Moses.

In Mathew 5: 17-19 Jesus as the Prophet like Moses was calling the Jews back to following the Law as given by God and not as it was being practiced under the teachings of the religious leaders, the Pharisees.


anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:17-19)


 

Jesus was not saying that the Jews needed to keep the Law for salvation as He refers to both those who set aside the commands’ and ‘those who “practice” and “teach” the commands’ as being in the ‘kingdom of heaven’.

Jesus is saying to Jews who believe in Him, that if they set aside even the least of the commands of the Law and teaches others to do so, that they will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus is also saying to Jews that believe in Him that those who practice (or “do”) His commands and teach others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

As I mentioned above, I will elaborate further in an upcoming article, that the Law reflects the righteousness of God and the justice of God — and was always a Law based on faith not works. Paul picks up this concept in Romans 9;


What should we say then? Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained righteousness—namely the righteousness that comes from faith. But Israel, pursuing the law for righteousness, has not achieved the righteousness of the law.  Why is that? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. ~ Romans 9:30-32


Paul is saying that the Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness [were apart from the Law before Jesus came] have obtained righteousness, the righteousness that comes from faith, by believing in the One that was the “goal [Gr. telios] of the Law” (Romans 10:4), that is, Jesus.

But of the Jews [i.e. Israel] , Paul is saying that they pursued keeping the law in order to achieve righteousness but did not achieve righteousness because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were by works.

Galatians 2:15-16 reinforces the same idea as was outlined in Romans 10 — that the Jews knew the works of the Law never justified anyone;


We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.  And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ  and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified.


Getting back to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus clearly said to the Jews to whom He was speaking that both those who set aside the commands of the Law and those who practice and teach the commands Law are in the ‘kingdom of heaven’ — so we know that practicing and teaching the commands has nothing to do with salvation.

So why did Jesus say that Jews who practice (or “do”) the commands of the Law and teach others to do so will be called great in the kingdom?

This will be picked up in the next article which will be on God’s call to the Jews and God’s call to the Gentiles — which finds it’s full expression through the ekklesia, the Church,

 

 

Different Sects of Jews – from Pharisees, Sadducees to sects of today

Pharisees

In the New Testament, we hear a lot about two of the different sects of Jews, namely Pharisees and Sadducees but except for remembering that one believed in the resurrection and one didn’t, many people know little about these sects. Who were they and what did they believe? What about the Pharisees beliefs elicited such strong words from Jesus ?  What happened to these groups? This note will be about that, as well as how these sects relate to sects we see in Judaism today.


SADDUCEES – (Tzadokim, plural Hebrew – meaning ‘descendant of Zakok’) were the party of high priests, aristocratic families and merchants; the wealthier people of the population and flourished for about two centuries before the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

During the Persian period, the Temple became more than the center of worship after its reconstruction in 516 BCE; it also served as the center of society. As a result, the priests, who were Sadducees held important positions as official leaders outside of the Temple. During the Hellenistic period, the influence of democracy shifted the focus of Judaism away from the Temple and in the 3rd century BCE, the scribal class, known as PHARISEES began to emerge (see below).

Not much is known with certainty of the Sadducees’ origin and early history, but their name may be derived from that of Zadok, who was high priest in the time of King David and King Solomon. Ezekiel later selected this family as worthy of being entrusted with control of the Temple and Zadokites formed the Temple hierarchy until the 2nd century BCE. The Sadducees found merit and claimed authority based on birth into this high social class and in their economic position (whereas the Pharisees found merit and authority in their piety and learning) and made up the Temple priesthood.

The Sadducees held only to the Law as recorded in Written Torah i.e. the first five books of the Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament) – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Because of their strict adherence to the Written Law, the Sadducees acted severely in cases involving the death penalty and they interpreted literally the Mosaic principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. The Sadducees refused to accept any precept as binding unless it was based directly on the Written Torah. (The Pharisees belief system was very different, as you’ll see below. )

The Sadducees did not believe in immortality of the soul, bodily resurrection after death or the existence of angels or demons.

Though the Sadducees were conservative in religious matters they were staunch defenders of the status quo. Their wealth and social position based on birth as well as their willingness to compromise with the Roman rulers resulted in them being greatly disliked by the common people.

The Sadducees are believed to have died out sometime after the destruction of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, as without a Temple and it’s rites, there is no need for priests. It has been speculated that the later KARAITES (see below) may have stemmed from the Sadducees.


THE PHARISEES – The Pharisees (Perushim, plural Hebrew – meaning ‘separated’) emerged as a distinct group shortly after the Maccabean revolt and are thought to be a branch from the Hasideans, a religious party during the time of the Maccabean wars. The Pharisees were the ruling religious party during the latter part of the Second Temple period (515 BCE–70 CE) and were predominantly laymen and scribes.

Very different from what the High Priests, the SADDUCEES believed, the Pharisees believed that the Law (Torah) that God gave Moses consisted of two parts; the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.

Written Torah (called “Torah Shebichtav”) were the first five books of the Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament); including Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Oral Torah (also called “Torah Sheba’al Peh”) were the explanations of the Written Law that were believed to have been given by God to Moses during the 40 days and nights he was on Mount Sinai and that are said to have been passed down orally in an unbroken chain from Moses to Joshua and in an unbroken chain generation to generation from there.

In addition to the Written Torah and Oral Torah, the Pharisees held to the principle of evolution in the Law and believed that men must use their reason in interpreting the Torah and applying it to contemporary problems. They interpreted Written Torah according to what they believed the text suggested or implied and when they felt a law was no longer appropriately interpreted because circumstances had changed, they reinterpreted its meaning, seeking scriptural support for their actions through a system of hermeneutics. This progressive tendency of the Pharisees to interpret Torah continued to develop and continues right up until today in Judaism (see ORTHODOX JEWS, below).

Note: When Jesus was challenging the Pharisees and their practices, it was sometimes their hypocrisy in saying one thing and doing another that He was addressing or that what they were teaching focused on the what others saw (the outward man) and not what God concerned Himself with (the inward man).  At other times it was their “traditions of men” that He was addressing — where their interpretations were elevated to the same status as Written Torah .

[addendum – July 7, 2015: The Scribes and Pharisees were tasked with the responsibility to “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matt 23:2) which was generally understood to mean that they had the authority to teach Moses.  According to Jesus in Matthew, the religious leaders taught the commandments of men which make void the commandments of God (15:6) and these teachings are plants which will be uprooted (15:13) since they were not planted by God, but by an enemy (13:37-39). The issue, it seems was an emphasis on human ordinances which affected the outer man while leaving the inner man untouched (23:25-28) and miss the deeper spiritual truths which Moses intended; i.e. they “strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel” (23:24).  Jesus considered the teachings of these leaders to be leaven, which left unchallenged, would leaven the whole (16:11-12) lump.  He also said that the leaders erred because they “knew not the Scriptures” (22:29) and their traditions had led them away from the weightier matters of the Torah (23:23).]

The Pharisees were a society of scholars and enjoyed a large popular following right up to New Testament times.

About 100 BCE, the Pharisees tried to democratize the Jewish religion and remove it from the control of the Temple priests (Sadducees). They believed that God could and should be worshiped away from the Temple and outside Jerusalem and that worship of God was not to be found in the offering of sacrifices (which were the heart of the practice of the Temple priests; the Sadducees); but in prayer and in the study of God’s law. It was out of these beliefs that the synagogue was developed by the Pharisees, promoted and  given a central place in Jewish religious life.

After the destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, it was the synagogue and the Torah schools of the Pharisees that continued to function and to promote Judaism in the centuries following the Diaspora.

When the Mishnah (the first constituent part of the Talmud) was compiled about 200 CE, it incorporated the teachings of the Pharisees on Jewish law.

The Pharisees insistence on the binding force of “oral tradition” (a synonym for Oral Torah, or Oral Law) remains a basic tenet of Jewish theological thought as embodied by ORTHODOX JEWS right up to the present time (see below), as does the dynamic nature of Scriptural interpretation in the face of changing historical circumstances and devotion to education.


ORTHODOX JEWS

The Orthodox claim that their sect goes all the way back to when Moses received the commandments from God on Mount Sinai and the very nature of what it means to be Orthodox within Judaism is the insistence on the binding nature of both Written Torah and Oral Torah. To the Orthodox,

Written Torah (called “Torah Shebichtav”) are the first five books of the Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament); including Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Oral Torah (also called “Torah Sheba’al Peh”) were the oral explanations of Written Torah given by God to Moses during his 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai that were passed down orally in an unbroken chain from generation to generation until its contents were finally written down in the Talmud and Gemara as a means to preserve them following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. “Oral Torah” consists of Midrashim (plural of Midrash) and includes exegesis of Written Torah along with homiletic stories as taught by the Rabbinic sages of the post-Temple era and the Tosefta which is considered a supplement to the Midrash and is a compilation of the Jewish Oral Law from the late 2nd century period.

Orthodox Judaism is not a single movement or school of thought. There is no single rabbinical body to which all rabbis are expected to belong, or any one organization representing member congregations. In the United States for example, there are numerous Jewish Orthodox organizations, such as Agudath Israel, the Orthodox Union and the National Council of Young Israel; none of which can claim to represent a majority of all Orthodox congregations.

In the 20th century, a segment of the Orthodox population took a stricter approach with their rabbis viewing innovations and modifications within Jewish law and customs with extreme care and caution. Some observers and scholars refer to this form of Judaism as “Haredi Judaism“, or “Ultra-Orthodox Judaism” ;  embodied by the black cloaked and wide brimmed hat-wearing men of Hasidim (also called Hasidic Jews).

Contemporary Orthodox Jews believe that they adhere to the same basic philosophy and legal framework that has existed throughout Jewish history, whereas the other denominations depart from it. Orthodox Jews believe that Orthodox Judaism as it exists today, extends from the time of Moses, through the time of the Mishnah and Talmud until the present time, essentially intact and unchanged.


REFORMED JEWS

The grandfather of Reform Judaism was Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786).  Although Mendelssohn never publicly rejected Written Torah or Oral Torah’s divine origin, it is believed that his decision to reform Judaism stemmed from four out of six of his children becoming believers in Jesus.  Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), the most influential of Reform’s second generation proclaimed at the first Reform rabbinical conference in Germany that “the Talmud must go, the Bible, that collection of mostly so beautiful and exalted human books, as a divine work must also go”.

Reformed Judaism denies even Written Torah’s divine origin i.e. according to their beliefs, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are nothing more than human inventions. Nor do they believe in a personal messiah or in bodily resurrection; both of which are pillars of the Jewish oral tradition. Their prayer book did away with traditional prayers for a return to Zion, the rebuilding of the Temple and the Reform seminary, the Hebrew Union College did away with Jewish dietary laws.  Having already freed themselves from the observance of “kashrut” (kosher) in 1885 they denounced the Scriptures as “the work of men”, circumcision; the mark of the Jewish covenant as “a barbarous cruelty” and abolished the concept of matrilineal lineage established by the ORTHODOX JEWS.

Note: Orthodox Jews (based on the interpretations of the rabbis) deem a child to be Jewish by the blood of the mother (in contrast to written Torah which is patrilear i.e. descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Reformed Judaism decided that if either parent is Jewish, the child is Jewish.

Seeking to “emancipate themselves from Rabbinic legality”,  the denomination completely abandoned the practices outlined in the Shulchan Aruch (literally “set table”) also known by various Jewish communities as “the Code of Jewish Law“.  Not only were Reformed Jews no longer considered bound to any Jewish observance, Jewish observance was discouraged. Since marriages between Jews and those of other religions are readily performed by Reformed Rabbis without any need for the non-Jew to adhere to any Jewish practice, assimilation takes place without much notice or care.

According to surveys, most Reformed Rabbis consider themselves agnostic, atheist or secular humanist with a small percentage believing in a ‘supreme being’ but certainly not the God of the Scriptures.


CONSERVATIVE JEWS

Zacharias Frankel, whom many cite as the Conservative movement’s intellectual ancestor believed that rather than the leadership of a movement stipulating what practices should and shouldn’t be adhered to (as in the case of the REFORMED JEWS), the task at hand was to confirm the abandonment of those ideas and practices which the community had already set aside. The goal was to have transformation from practice to non-practice occur in such a way as to proceed in such a way as to be “unnoticed’, and “seem inconsequential to the average eye”.

Many preferred Frankel’s more subtle approach to the REFORMED JEWS accelerating leaps away from Jewish tradition and these “conservatives” branched off to form a new movement – Conservative Judaism.

In 1886, they founded the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and an article printed in the new institution’s magazine declared that JTS would steer a course between “stupid Orthodoxy and insane Reform”.

Not that the Conservative Movement had any more affinity for the Law of Torah or Jewish customs, only the rate at which these foundations of Judaism were abandoned.

The Law of Moses (Torah) according to JTS Professor of Jewish Philosophy Neil Gillman “represents the canonical statement of our myth”.

As promised at the outset, observance of Jewish customs within Conservative Judaism was left to disappear at the “rate at which the community sets them aside”.


RECONSTRUCTIONIST JUDAISM

Reconstructionist Judaism is a modern American Jewish movement based on the ideas of Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983). The movement views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization and originated as a branch of Conservative Judaism. The movement developed from the late 1920s to 1940s, and it established a rabbinical college in 1968.

There is substantial theological diversity within the movement. Halakha, the collective body of Jewish laws, customs and traditions is not considered binding but is treated as a valuable cultural remnant that should be upheld unless there is reason for the contrary.

The movement emphasizes positive views toward modernism, and has an approach to Jewish custom which aims toward communal decision making through a process of education and distillation of values from traditional Jewish sources.


KARAITE JEWS

Karaite Judaism (from the Hebrew meaning “Readers of the Hebrew Scriptures”) – also called Karaism – is reported to have started in Baghdad circa 7th–9th centuries CE under the Abbasid Caliphate in what is present-day Iraq. Historians have argued over whether Karaites have a direct connection to the SADDUCEES dating back to the end of the Second Temple period (70 CE) or is a novel emergence of a sect with similar views.

Karaites have always maintained that while there are some similarities to the Sadducees, there are also differences, and that the ancestors of the Karaites were another group called Benei Sedeq during the Second Temple period.

Karaites were at one time a significant proportion of the Jewish population however estimates of the Karaite population are difficult to make because they believe on the basis of Genesis 32 that counting Jews is forbidden.  Some 30–50,000 Karaites are thought to reside in Israel, with smaller communities in Turkey, Europe and the United States. Another estimate holds that of the 50,000 world-wide, over 40,000 descend from those who made aliyah from Egypt and Iraq to Israel.

The Karaites are characterized by the recognition of the Tanakh alone (i.e. only the Old Testament) as its supreme legal authority in Halakha (Jewish religious law) and theology.

[Recall that Rabbinic / Orthodox Judaism considers the Oral Torah, as recorded in the Talmud and Gemara to be as authoritative as Written Torah, as outlined in the first five books of Moses].

Karaites maintain that all of the divine commandments handed down to Moses by God were recorded in the written Torah without additional Oral Law or explanation.  As a result, Karaite Jews do not accept as binding the written collections of the oral tradition in the Midrash or Talmud.

When interpreting the Tanakh, Karaites strive to adhere to the plain or most obvious meaning (“peshat”) of the text; this is not necessarily the literal meaning, but rather the meaning that would have been naturally understood by the ancient Israelites when the books of the Tanakh were first written.

[Rabbinic / Orthodox Judaism relies on the legal rulings of the Sanhedrin as they are codified in the Midrash, Talmud, and other sources to indicate the authentic meaning of the Torah.]

Karaite Judaism holds every interpretation of the Tanakh to the same scrutiny regardless of its source and as a result would consider arguments made in the Talmud or Midrash without exalting them above any other viewpoints.

Karaite Judaism teaches that it is the personal responsibility of every individual Jew to study the Torah, and ultimately decide for themselves its correct meaning.


MESSIANIC JEWS

Messianic Jews are Jews (physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) that believe Jesus (Yeshua , His Hebrew Name) is the Messiah of Israel of whom the Law and Prophets spoke. The Early Church (ekklesia) was comprised largely of Jews and it wasn’t until Jesus’ death and resurrection that Gentiles came into focus.

From the record in Acts and other historical evidence, it is believed that hundreds of thousands of Jews followed Jesus’ teachings (Acts 2:41, 2:47, 4:4, 6:7, 9:31, 21:20) and continued to live as “Jews that believed” – just as Jesus did during His life in keeping the Passover (John 2:13-22, John 5), Succoth / Feast of Tabernacles/Booths (John 7), Chanukah / Feast of Dedication (John 10) and the Sabbath where He was in synagogue “as was His custom” (Luke 4:16).

The Apostle Paul, went to the synagogue as well (Acts 13:13-15) and not just on isolated occasions. Like Jesus, Paul went to the synagogue “as was his custom” (Acts 17:2).

The early Jewish believers were no different.

Jewish believers along with Gentile believers in the Church at Jerusalem and Antioch, including Polycarp, a Church Father (80-167 CE) continued to celebrate the Passover on the 14th of Nisan and did so for the first two centuries, possibly until the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.  For more information on that see http://www.jewishrootsofchristianity.ca/early-church-including-polycarp-continued-to-celebrate-passover/

The Nazarenes (as the early Jewish believers were also called) were seen as a Jewish sect by the Romans and fared no better than non-believing Jews during the siege of Jerusalem. With the destruction of the Temple, the Nazarenes fled Jerusalem in 70 CE, along with the other Jews.  With the Temple destroyed, the Jewish believers continued to be able to attend synagogue to hear the Law and the Prophets read, until changes in the synagogue liturgy made by Gamaliel II (grandson of the Gamaliel referred to in Acts 5) in 72-73 CE made it impossible for them to do so. These changes in liturgy were designed to expose what Gamaliel considered “minim” or heretics, including the Nazarenes (Jewish believers).  By adding a prayer to the Amidah (the central prayer of the liturgy) cursing the “mimin”, the Nazarenes could neither say the prayer nor respond ‘amen’ to it.  Forty years after Jesus’ death, the traditional synagogue was no longer open to Jewish believers. For more on this, see http://www.jewishrootsofchristianity.ca/the-temple-synagogue-in-the-early-church/

Whether the Jewish believers formed their own synagogues at this time or stopped meeting on the Sabbath altogether is unknown although there may be archaeological evidence of a Messianic synagogue in Jerusalem from this period.

We do know from Scripture that the Jewish believers met together in homes (Acts 2:46) and it is thought that some began to meet on the first day of the week after Jesus’ resurrection.  While we often think of this as Sunday morning, in Jewish understanding the first day of the week begins Saturday after sunset. It is thought that the early believers may have gathered at the end of the Sabbath, on Saturday night for fellowship and breaking of bread.

The early Church consisted of two distinct but united corporate bodies; Jews and Gentiles but in time, as more and more Gentiles followed Jesus, the proportion of Gentiles in the Church far outweighed that of Jews. With the death of the original Jewish Apostles and proportionately less Jews in the Church, Jewish expression within the Church essentially disappeared from view until the resurgence of the modern Messianic Jewish movement in the 19th century.

In the early 1800s, some groups created congregations and societies of Jewish believers with some started by Jewish believers themselves, including the Anglican London Society for promoting Christianity among the Jews started by Joseph Frey (1809) — which also published the first Yiddish New Testament, the Beni Abraham Association established by Frey in 1813 with a group of 41 Jewish believers who started meeting at Jews’ Chapel, London for prayers Friday night and Sunday morning and the London Hebrew Christian Alliance of Great Britain founded by Dr. Carl Schwartz in 1866. The establishment of Frey’s Beni Abraham Congregation in September 1813 at the rented “Jews’ Chapel” in Spitalfields is considered by some to be the birth of the semi-autonomous “Hebrew Christian” movement with the later Episcopal Jew’s Chapel Abrahamic Society being registered in 1835.

In Eastern Europe, Joseph Rabinowitz established a Hebrew Christian mission and congregation called “Israelites of the New Covenant” in Kishinev, Ukraine in 1884 and was supported by the well-known Jewish believer Franz Delitzsch, translator of the first modern Hebrew translation of the New Testament. In 1865, Rabinowitz created an order of worship for Sabbath morning service based on a mixture of Jewish and Christian elements.

In the United States, a congregation of Jewish believers was established in New York City in 1885 and in the 1890s, immigrant Jewish believers worshiped at the Methodist “Hope of Israel” mission on New York’s Lower East Side while retaining some Jewish rites and customs. The first use of the term Messianic Judaism occurred in 1895, with the 9th edition of the Hope of Israel’s magazine Our Hope carrying the subtitle “A Monthly Devoted to the Study of Prophecy and to Messianic Judaism”.

In 1894,  Jewish believer and Baptist minister Leopold Cohn founded the Brownsville Mission to the Jews in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York.  After several changes in name, structure and focus, the organization changed its name to Chosen People Ministries and continues to operate to this day around the world.

Missions to the Jews saw a period of growth between the 1920s and the 1960s during which time the term meshichim (literally “Messianics”) became popular to counter the negative connotations amongst Jews of the term notsrim (from “Nazarenes”, meaning “Christians”).

Messianic Judaism as a denomination took root in the 1960s and 70s with Jewish believers committed to maintaining their Jewish lifestyle within their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Martin Chernoff, who was president of the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America (HCAA) from 1971 to 1975, led the effort to change the name of the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America (HCAA) to the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA) which was accomplished in June  of 1975.

The name change was more than semantics; it represented the desire of Jewish believers to live out their faith in the Messiah promised in the Law and the Prophets in a way consistent with the expression of the early Church.

From 2003 to 2007, the movement grew from 150 Messianic congregations in the United States to as many as 438 Messianic Congregations in the US and over 100 in Israel — with more worldwide. Most congregations affiliated with larger Messianic organizations or alliances. As of 2008 the movement was estimated to have between 6,000 and 15,000 members in Israel alone.

A 2013 survey by Pew Research Center determined that there are about 159,000 Messianic Jews in the United States with estimates of the number worldwide of 350,000.

[Note: It is important to note the Supreme Court of Israel rejects Jewish believer’s claims to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return on the basis that they assert that Messianic Judaism is a form of Christianity.]

Often seen as “too Jewish for the Church and too Christian for the Jews” Jewish believers continue to strive to find their place as Jews within the congregation of Israel’s multinational extension — the Church.

The Key-maker’s Sons – a modern parable

parables

by Simcha

Introduction: this is a modern parable to help our Gentile Christian friends imagine the Church from a Jewish believer’s perspective.


 

There was a young man who had been living in the same house for a while.  He had decorated it to his taste and even changed the purposes of some of the rooms, using them as they weren’t originally designed.  He loved his home and was very appreciative of it.  He often entertained people in it and was very hospitable to strangers.

One day, a man a number of years older than him came to the house, but he didn’t knock.  He opened the door and came in; not even wiping his feet or taking off his shoes.  The young man approached the older one and inquired what would cause him to just walk into the house.  The older man replied and said “do you not know me? I am your brother and this is our house”.

“Yeah, I heard it was our house” said the younger “because our father left me some paperwork to that effect, but I figured you weren’t returning or maybe even that you were dead.”

The older man replied “I’m tired from my travels through distant lands and glad to be home. Our father gave me this land a long time ago, before he built the house for us on it, but he’d planned from the beginning for us to live together in it someday.”

“What are you talking about “the land” is yours?” replied the younger man.  “If the house is both of ours then the land is too”.

“Did our father tell you that?”

“Well, not exactly.  I too was a wanderer before and was born from ‘away’.  When I came from the lands of the aliens and strangers on our father’s invitation, when I asked he gave me a key and said that all he had belonged to me.  I didn’t even think that there were things he gave you before I came or was even invited, and if there were I figured they weren’t relevant.  I left your things in the house for a while but eventually I just packed them up and put them in the basement.  It was all stuff from a long, long time ago that had no meaning to me and besides, it was all over the house.  Your customs being born here are different than mine, because I was born ‘away’.  When I moved into the house, I just assumed that land was mine, too.  All your things are downstairs in several  boxes.  Like I said, I didn’t think you were going to come for them”.  Pausing for a moment the younger man thought, as if remembering something. “Maybe that’s what was meant by that old story about the shopkeeper that brings out treasures, both new and old. ”

The older brother smiled and said “I understand this is a lot to take in at once.  Of course everything our father didn’t give to me previously is for both of us to be shared equally.  Our father is wise, and figuring this would probably come up, so he gave me a copy of the paperwork and said he left you the exact same copy.  In it, are all the details about the land he bequeathed to me and to my children and theirs forever and that my descendants would never be wiped out. You have no need of the land anyway, but it serves a purpose.” Then the older brother added “If it’s okay with you, I’m going to get my things and put them back in my room”.

“Yeah, sure.  Which one is your room?”

“That one at the end of the hall on the right”. It had a gold colour mezuzah on the door.

“Oh yeah, about that.  I took the mezuzah off when I remodelled the room”.

“What do you mean ‘remodeled the room’?”

“Yeah, it’s not a bedroom anymore but a place for me to hang out with my friends and it’s also a guest room. I love having people come and stay with me and making them feel at home.   Our father told me that was reason he build the house.”

“Yes, you’re right about that.  He built the house as a place that the alien and stranger could come and become family with us, as well as a place that those of my family that have been away for a long time could come and become family with us, too.  Our father sent word to them with instructions so they could find their way here and he gave keys to all those who asked.

“There are ‘other members’ of your family are coming too?”, said the younger brother.

“Yes.”

“How many exactly are coming?”

The older brother replied “I’m not sure. Our father sent out invitations and keys were given to any who received our father’s invitation to come live in his house.

“Where are we going to put them all? I mean, I realize now that you and me are supposed to share the house which is fine, and obviously your room is still ‘your room’ and the things our father gave you before I was born are still yours; I ‘get that’…even though I thought they were mine.  But now you say others are coming too?”

“There are rooms in this house that you don’t even know about.  Our father knew that of all the people he invited; that some of the aliens and strangers would come and some of my descendants would come and he planned for all of that”.

The older brother paused, wondering if he should tell his younger brother the whole story and if now was a good time.  He thought for a bit and then slowly continued, “To be honest with you, I was very disobedient and our father sent me away.  The land was overrun with foreigners and the house was trashed.  After a very long time, I saw the error of my ways and came back and asked our father’s forgiveness.  He was very gracious and forgave me, but I didn’t learn.  I did the same thing a few years later and again, our father sent me away.  Again the land was overrun.  Once more, I saw the error of my ways and asked our father’s forgiveness and again he was so gracious and forgave me. Then, while I was living in the house, he told me what he planned from the beginning and I would not hear of it.  I was angry. Then everything he said would happened came to pass exactly as he said and I raged at him. Once again I was sent away, this time to the furthest reaches of the earth.  The original house was destroyed.  But our father build a new one in its place; one made without hands and the one he spoke about a long, long time ago.  He put my things in it, knowing someday I would return”.

The older brother stopped and looked in the eyes of his younger brother. “Then he sent word to me about you, I think he was hoping to make me jealous, but I wouldn’t come.  My treasure was elsewhere and I really didn’t want to see him and could care less about you.  I stayed in the distant lands even though he had prepared a place for me. Then one day our father sent for me and said he was calling me and my descendants back.  He reminded me of things he said a long time ago that told about all of what was happening now. Some of my descendants began to make their way back here.  They’ve been camping on the land, but don’t have keys to be able to enter the house, at least not yet.  Yes, my brother, the house is both of ours and we are joint and equal inheritors of it; just like our father told us in the paperwork he left both of us.”

He paused and waiting for his younger brother to process what he just said.  Then he added “you know, I didn’t just come for my things. I am moving back in. Our father gave you copies of the paperwork, have you ever read through them?”

“Yes”, the younger one replied, “but only parts and I didn’t interpret it literally because much of it was based on you actually coming back and I really didn’t think that was going to happen. It was so difficult to take literally because unless you and the promises he made to you and your descendants actually happened, none of it made sense.  So I looked at that paperwork in terms of what it meant for me, given you probably weren’t returning. For all I knew you could be dead and so I made some assumptions that made sense of the paperwork.”

The older brother paused and thought and replied “I understand.  I didn’t think I was going to come back either”.  Then he added quietly, “You know, our father could have given the land away because I broke my word with him time and time again.  I was such an unfaithful son.  But he reminded me so many few times that the land wasn’t based on my faithfulness but his. Did you realize that in all the paperwork said a few times that nothing would happen that he didn’t speak of and have written down beforehand? Nothing. And nowhere in any of the paperwork did he ever say that the land would be given to anyone else, even though strangers would trample it. It was like those stones in the river, reminding all of my generations and yours that he is faithful. You know, everything our father said happened, just as he said”.  Then he sat down and tears filled his eyes. “And the key-maker.  Oh, the key-maker! I didn’t realize until recently that our father spoke of the key-maker right from the beginning, because I couldn’t see it”.

The younger son also sat down and repeated along with his brother “oh, the key-maker”.  “I can barely understand how he was willing to do what he did”.

The older brother looked at the younger and said “you do know that it was the key-maker was the one that built this house.  He was the one that made it possible for us to live here together; me reconciled to our father from my rebellion and sin and you brought from far-away lands and adopted by him to be his heir, my brother and my equal.”. There was a long silence as both thought about the key-maker and the day they will see him again.

The older brother was the first to break the long silence. “From what I’ve read on my long journey back, there is a far more glorious land for both of us than the physical one he left my descendants, along with his promise that my descendants would always exist.  It’s a land that will pale in comparison. It’s not a physical land like this one and no one will have to till it or work it.  The key-maker himself will come and live with us and all of those that were invited and follow his ways can come. There won’t be any more disobedience or death and no more wandering.”

Both said together “I can hardly wait!”

They laughed and embraced as tears streamed down their faces.

Then turning to his brother, the younger one said “Welcome home brother, let me get your things”.

 

Is there a Difference between Jewish Believers and Gentile Christians?

writing torah scroll

by Joy

 

 

 

Introduction: People often wonder if there is any difference between Jewish believers in Jesus and Gentile Christians. This blog explores how we are similar and how we are unique.


 

I’ve been a believer in Jesus the Messiah for over 30 years.  I’ve been a member in a handful of churches and 2 Messianic congregations in that time and have come to understand from Scripture, that while Jewish believers and Gentile Christians form “one new man”  (Eph 2:17), we as Jews understand our faith within that Jewish context.

It seems to me that Gentile Christians largely look at the Old Testament from the perspective of the New.  They look backward, so to speak. Jewish believers tend to look at the New Testament as the culmination of the Old — so look forward. It is not unexpected that we would do so, as many of us came to faith on the basis of what it said in the Old Testament. What other frame of reference was there, if not the Old?

Many of our journeys of faith are not that different than the Jews of the early church.  We came to recognized the Messiah based on what it said in the Tenakh (what Christians call the Old Testament). If we didn’t grow up with Torah teaching and Hebrew School, we grew up with the festivals celebrating what God had done and so our understanding followed that same trajectory; from the Old to the New.

Maybe I am wrong, but I think since Gentile Christians come from a variety of different cultural backgrounds; Anglo Saxon, European, African, Asian; some of Roman Catholic or Buddhist or Hindu or Sikh religious background, that it natural to see how Hosea 2:23 played out in its fulfillment in Romans 9:25; that those who were “not a people” became “a people“, His beloved.  The Jews were “a people” from God’s choosing them way back in Genesis 17.  We have always been a people and remain a people.  Perhaps you can understand from that perspective, that it is easy to see why we continue to see ourselves as Jews. We have always been Jews; we know nothing else and even more importantly, God made a covenant with our forefathers that is everlasting (Genesis 17:7-8). We never stop being Jews from His perspective.


“I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. “I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”


The Early Church was comprised largely of Jews and it wasn’t until Jesus’ death and resurrection that Gentiles came into focus.  It was only when the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles in Acts, that the Church had to decide what to do with Gentile believers in Jesus.

While it might seem unpalatable to talk about, Jesus said to the 12 Disciples upon sending them out (Mt 10:6) “Don’t take the road leading to other nations and don’t go to any Samaritan town. Instead go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel“. He came to the Jews, as promised and He said so. This wasn’t the only time He said this. His response to a Gentile woman who came to Him (Mt 15:21-28) wanting Him to deliver her daughter from a distressing spirit was “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel“. That sounds pretty bigoted, doesn’t it? Actually, Jesus said something far more controversial to her. He said that “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to their dogs” which was clearly understood to mean to take bread out of Jewish mouths and give it to Gentiles. The Gentile woman, understood what Jesus meant — that He was referring to Gentiles with respect to Jews as “dogs” and the Jews (the lost sheep of the house of Israel) as “children”. The Gentile woman understood this, because this was the way Jews regarded Gentiles in that time. She replied “yes, even their dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their Master’s table“.

As harsh as is sounds and as unpalatable as it is, prior to Jesus making us “one new man” by His death — from a Jewish perspective, we were “a people” and Gentiles were “not a people”, we were viewed as “children” and Gentiles, not. That ended on the cross.


So then, remember that at one time you were Gentiles in the flesh—called “the uncircumcised” by those called “the circumcised,” which is done in the flesh by human hands. At that time you were without the Messiah, excluded from the citizenship of Israel, and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus, you who were far away have been brought near by the blood of the Messiah. For He is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility. In His flesh,  He made of no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations, so that He might create in Himself one new man from the two, resulting in peace. He did this so that He might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross and put the hostility to death by it. When the Messiah came, He proclaimed the good news of peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.  For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. The whole building, being put together by Him, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord. You also are being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit.” (Eph 2:11-22)


God did what He said He would do way back in Genesis when He said to Abraham “in you all the Nations of the world will be blessed” (Genesis 22:18). The word here for nations of the world (is HaGoyim in Hebrew, which literally means “Gentiles”.

Because of Jesus’ death, no longer would we as Jews be judged on the basis of the Law (and in that way He “made of no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations”) but now, both Jew and Gentile would be judged the same way; on the basis of being found or not found in Him. We were made equals. That is what is meant in Galatians 3:28 when it says “there is no difference between Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus“.  It’s not that there aren’t differences; of course there are differences; there are differences between males and females, but we are equal before God.  Same with Jews and Gentiles; different but equal.

Prior to Jesus’ death, Jesus said explicitly that He was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. His Father sent Him to the Jews in fulfillment of 60 or more prophecies spoken of beforehand in the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. But after Jesus’ death, the division between Jew and Gentile was broken down; as it says in Ephesians 2:15, He “created in Himself one new man from the two, resulting in peace”. After His ascension, the Sent One (Jesus) became the Sending One in what is commonly called the Great Commission (Mark 16:16, Matt 28:19). The Gospel was now “to the Jew first and also the Gentile” (Romans 1:16).

In Acts, when the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles, the Early Church comprised of Jews had to come to a decision as to whether these Gentiles had to be circumcised and become Jews, and keep Jewish law and customs. the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 settled the matter; Gentiles did not need to be circumcised, observe the Sabbath, keep the dietary laws or any of the other commands of the Law.  The decision was they were to continue to follow the protocol set out for Gentiles living amongst Jews in Leviticus (Leviticus 17 & 18) and “(1) abstain from things polluted by idols, (2) from sexual immorality, (3) from eating anything that has been strangled and (4) from blood” (Acts 15:20).

Yes, this wasn’t “new”.  This was the SAME protocol for Gentiles (also called foreigners) living amongst Jews in the Old Testament;

(1) abstain from things polluted by idols; (Leviticus 17:7-8) “They must no longer offer their sacrifices to the goat-demons that they have prostituted themselves with. This will be a permanent statute for them throughout their generations. Say to them: Anyone from the house of Israel or from the foreigners who live among them who offers a burnt offering or a sacrifice but does not bring it to the entrance to the tent of meeting to sacrifice it to the Lord, that person must be cut off from his people.

(2) abstain from sexual immorality; (Leviticus 18:1-26) “Do not profane the name of your God; I am Yahweh. You are not to sleep with a man as with a woman; it is detestable. You are not to have sexual intercourse with[f] any animal, defiling yourself with it; a woman is not to present herself to an animal to mate with it; it is a perversion….You must not commit any of these detestable things—not the native or the foreigner who lives among you.(Leviticus 18:21, 26)

(3) abstain from eating anything that has been strangled (Leviticus 17:15) “Every person, whether the native or the foreigner, who eats an animal that …was mauled by wild beasts is to wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will remain unclean until evening; then he will be clean. 16 But if he does not wash his clothes and bathe himself, he will bear his punishment.”

(4) abstain from blood (Leviticus 17:10,12) “Anyone from the house of Israel or from the foreigners who live among them who eats any blood, I will turn against that person who eats blood and cut him off from his people…Therefore I say to the Israelites: None of you and no foreigner who lives among you may eat blood


The Church settled the matter in the first century that Gentiles didn’t have to become Jews once they came to believe in Jesus, yet there seems to be a generally held, if not explicitly said belief, that Jews need to convert to Christianity and act like Gentiles. They certainly can’t keep acting like Jews, can they?

Did the Jews in the first century stop practicing as Jews once they believed in Jesus? What do the Scriptures say?

Something for you to consider; why would the Jerusalem Council have needed to meet to decide whether Gentiles had to convert to Judaism, undergo circumcision and follow Jewish dietary customs if the Jewish believers in the first century no longer did so?

And so began this blog…

This is an exploration of the practices of the Jews at the time of Jesus; their life involving the Temple and the Synagogue; the celebration of the holidays and festivals such as Sukkoth and Passover and how they lived as “Jews who believed” (also called “Nazarenes” or “of the Way”…and an understanding as to how we as Jews today do likewise.

My hope is that as you consider these posts your faith will be enriched and that through dialogue, we as Jews and Gentiles can relate in a way that doesn’t require either of us to become like the other, in order to live in unity.

Blessings and shalom,

Joy