Monday, July 26, 2010

Is the Bible for Christians?

This probably sounds like another of my ridiculous questions, but let's keep in mind that not all of the comments made in the Bible were directed at a general human audience. For instance, much of the Torah is specifically Moses, as the Prophet of God, telling the Children of Israel what their duties and responsibilities are to God and to each other. Even Yeshua/Jesus was speaking, most of the time, to his Jewish disciples and to a Jewish audience. Only on rare occasions, did he ever mention or address non-Jews. So what does the Bible have to do with Gentiles?

I'm in the process of reading through the Book of Jeremiah. I can't help but be taken by the loving comments God has to say to the Children of Israel, even as He is sending them off into exile in Babylonia for 70 years. He's already encouraging them and saying to them that they will call out to Him and He will listen to them and restore them to their Lands and they will be His people and He will be their God.

I can only imagine, even in the bitterness of exile and servitude in Babylonia, that this love must have been of great comfort and that the Jewish nation must have realized, no matter what happened to them, nothing would separate them from the love of God. I don't doubt many a Christian Pastor has used these passages to illustrate the love that Jesus has for Gentile Christians, but can comments made by God, through Jeremiah to the Jewish people be generalized to the rest of humanity? That may not be the case, but let's see.

I ask this question because, as you probably know by now if you've been reading this blog, I've been re-examining my assumptions about God, Yeshua, and my relationship to the Lord of Heaven, in order to see how or even if I somehow fit into His plan. I think I can definitively say that God has not abandoned or forsaken the rest of humanity, but do we have a clear picture of our role in relationship to God? Does the Bible, the totality of the Bible, speak to all of humanity, or do only certain portions apply? To take it a step further, are there portions of the Bible that Gentile believers in Yeshua read in vain?

Besides the Book of Jeremiah, some of the comments made in response to my prior blog article Who am I? inspired today's blog. For instance:
James, of course one can study G-d's word without being obligated to it or parts of it. Think about this: I am not a Kohaine or a Levite, but I can learn a lot from studying the very specific requirements given to them, even though all of them are not only NOT required for me, it would be grave SIN for me if I even attempted to take on the role of Kohaine or Levite (with me not being one).
This seems to answer my question. I can indeed study all parts of the Bible with the understanding that some or even most of the Bible really doesn't apply to me, at least from the point of view of the Bilateral Ecclesiology contingent of Messianic Judaism. As part of my self re-examination, I've been using MJ/BE as one of the mechanisms to test my understanding of my role in life and my role in the universe. I'm not saying that I believe MJ/BE is the best possible lens for which a Gentile "Yeshua-believer" to view himself or herself, but it does present a strikingly different view of who I'm supposed to be, relative to my usual understanding. Utilizing their teachings about Jews, Gentiles, and God, if nothing else, helps me to see where any gaps may exist in my faith and my knowledge. If I can "survive" an examination from the MJ/BE point of view, perhaps some of my dross will be burned away and I can become a more pure product.

I was entertaining visions of having my Bible being reduced to a pamphlet if I was only "allowed" access to the portions that specifically address Gentiles. There's an "urban legend" (I don't know if it's true or not) about Thomas Jefferson that says he used a pair of shears to cut out the parts of the Bible he didn't like. I had a vision of that being done to my Bible so that I could only read those bits and pieces that MJ/BE believes apply to me. Thankfully, it was just a wild bit of imagination.

It's somewhat comforting to know that I can still read those portions that don't have anything to do with me, though somewhat disturbing that some MJ/BE folks may consider it not only inappropriate for me to rest on the Shabbat but even, by implication, a sin.

Fear not. I fully intend on continuing to read all of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and attempt to gain a deeper understanding of God and humanity from His word. While not 100% of the Bible operates as a set of directives to be accessed by Gentiles, I believe a larger portion of the principles and examples are illuminating for all mankind. As far as I can tell, MJ/BE apparently limits the Torah to a set of directives aimed at two primary audiences: Jews and Gentiles.

The majority of directives apply to the Jewish people and only a tiny subset apply to Gentiles. Even directives in the Torah such as "Thou Shalt not Kill" and "Thou Shalt not Covet" apply only to the Jews, according to MJ/BE. Of course, not even MJ/BE believes that Gentiles are enabled by God to murder and covet freely and without consequences. Their justification for those commandments not applying to Gentile believers is that A. It's already written on our hearts, so we should know better and B. The written version of "Thou Shalt Not Kill" carries with it increased penalties for the Jewish people should they violate that commandment. Somehow this means that the "Thou Shalt Not Kill" written on my heart applies to me but the version written in the Bible does not. Yes, it's confusing to me, too.

To a degree, I'm a believer of the principle of Occam's Razor which, according to Wikipedia, states in part, ...that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. In order for the above explanation about the Torah to work, you have to perform more than a few literary and theological gymnastics (not unlike some portions of Kinzer's Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People, which I will review at a later time). Hardly the "simplest explanation". While I don't advocate Gentiles dressing up and pretending to be Jewish, I do believe that a larger portion of the Bible describes principles and lifestyle standards that can and should be applied to the wider Ekklesia. There is nothing wrong with Gentile believers feeding the poor, as it says in the Torah. There is nothing wrong with Gentile believers visiting the sick as it says in the Torah. There is nothing wrong with helping your neighbor with a problem, even if you don't really like your neighbor, as it says in the Torah. Most importantly, there is nothing wrong with a Gentile believer reading of these principles in the Torah/Bible, understanding that these are behaviors that God approves of in all humanity, and behaving out of these principles as written in the Torah. It takes nothing away from Judaism and specifically Messianic Judaism. Some support for this can be found in the commentary of Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth on Torah Portion Vaetchanan. Quoting R. Shmuel David Luzzatto, Rabbi Sacks says:
The effect of Christianity and Islam was to spread the Jewish message - albeit in ways with which Jews could not fully agree - throughout the world. Today these religions represent more than half of the six billion people on the face of the earth. The 'Judeo-Christian ethic' and the Abrahamic faiths have shaped much of the civilization of the West. The Torah really did become 'your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations.'
One of the obvious intents of God for the Jewish people and the Torah, was to be a "light to the world", as cited in the aforementioned Torah Portion. This is echoed in Yeshua's statements in both Matthew 5:13-16 in which he calls himself a "light of the world" and in Matthew 5:43-48 in which he refers to his Jewish disciples as that light. Connecting that to Matthew 28 and the ministries of Paul and Peter to the Gentiles, it seems clear that Yeshua expected his Jewish disciples to ...go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (emphasis mine). I'm not saying in this, that Yeshua necessarily told his Jewish disciples to go and teach the Gentiles to obey the totality of the Torah commandments, but putting all this together, there seems to be an intent for Gentiles to be taught a set of morals, ethics, practices, and principles of righteousness that are God-based and Torah-based (as perhaps opposed to Torah-inclusive). If all of the Torah that we needed was already written on our hearts, why would Yeshua specifically direct his disciples to teach all of his lessons to the nations? And why oh why, would Gentiles have the Bible in our hands today if we didn't need a written copy of what is written on our hearts? If MJ/BE is right, all I really need is to consult with my human intuition and just "know" what God wants me to do. No need to "test the spirits" by comparing my feelings with the word of God (and this last comment is definitely tongue-in-cheek).

Yes of course, the Bible is for everyone and, although not every specific commandment or situation is directly applicable to Gentile Yeshua-believers, much more can and should be relevant and meaningful to us than a mere portion of Acts 15.

19 comments:

Gene Shlomovich said...

"Yes of course, the Bible is for everyone and, although not every specific commandment or situation is directly applicable to Gentile Yeshua-believers, much more can and should be relevant and meaningful to us than a mere portion of Acts 15."

James - with that last statement you hit the proverbial nail on the head. If you stop right there, you can safely move on to other topics. Your above statement confirms what I thought - that you do not favor the one-size-fits-all approach to Torah, and that you do understand that while "all Scripture is G-d-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness," we are not obligated by G-d to fulfill certain [usually far less weighty] requirements meant for someone else, and that G-d gave Jews and Gentiles their own unique gifts and responsibilities. Our differences need not diminish our perception of self worth in G-d's eyes as His children, or our love and appreciation for each other.

James said...

Thanks for your comments, Gene. I agree that you can't apply the Bible in precisely the same way to Jewish Yeshua-believers as to Gentile Yeshua-believers. The comment you made in a previous article about how there are different roles, even within Judaism (Levites, Cohens, etc...) is illuminating and of course, illustrated in the Korach rebellion.

That said, there's a second part of the commentary as to exactly which portions of the Bible fit into Yeshua's directive to teach the nations to become disciples and to instruct them "to obey everything I have commanded you". Thereby hangs the tale.

Gene Shlomovich said...

"That said, there's a second part of the commentary as to exactly which portions of the Bible fit into Yeshua's directive to teach the nations to become disciples and to instruct them "to obey everything I have commanded you". Thereby hangs the tale."

James, two things come to mind:

1. Most of Yeshua's commandments to his desciples were moral in nature, having to do with charity, selflessness, kindness, purity, opposition to hypocrisy. Even his teaching on Shabbat was more of a what one SHOULD be doing on that day, instead of what one shouldn't.

2. The condemning stance against Judaizers as evidenced in Acts and Galatians (those who compelled Gentiles to live according to Jewish customs), tells us that from the very beginning neither the Jewish lifestyle for Gentiles nor their obligation toward Jewish authorities were parts of the Good News for the nations.

Not only that, in the instances where the Good News was shared directly with Gentiles (without Jews present), there's no mention of Torah observance, nor of any type of conformance to Jewish customs. The focus is simply on Yeshua and his sacrifice. The repentance from sin is required, but among the various sins specified as committed by the "pagans", there's never a mention about breaking Jewish laws like Shabbat or abstaining from non-kosher meats other than blood and idols sacrificed meats - but even in those cases, Gentiles are told not to examine closely anything bought on the market without asking questions.

Judah Gabriel Himango said...

James,

Brilliant article yet again.

There is a balance here: Torah is not one-size-fits-all -- gentiles aren't meant to serve in the Temple as Levites...at least not until Messiah comes. And yet, more than just the "moral" commandments are applicable to gentiles. The division between moral and ceremonial is human and superficial at best, and an excuse for sin at worst. (I think to the homosexuality issue currently dividing the Church.)

Even though much of Judaism interprets "Love your neighbor" to mean, "love your fellow Jew", Yeshua reiterated that commandment to his Jewish disciples and knew his audience would span the world across. He meant for that to reach gentiles and apply to them.

Ditto for when he told his Jewish followers to celebrate the Passover in his remembrance -- directed at Jews, applicable to all disciples.

Dan Benzvi said...

Judah,

not many Jews can serve as levites either....

James said...

What we've been dancing around here is the question, "What did Yeshua change by his coming, death, and resurrection?" The question splits into "What did he change for the Jew?" and "What did he change for the Gentile?"

I don't have definitive answers, but I believe those questions sit at the heart of all of these discussions. I have to believe that there was more than a null result to his presence for both Jews and Gentiles, otherwise why come and why come at that particular point in history?

Judah, it's interesting that you should mention the homosexual controversy just now. I was pondering the option offered by MJ/BE of Gentiles worshiping in the traditional church as opposed to a synagogue setting and then came across this article:

Lutherans Offer Warm Welcome to Gay Pastors

Having spent my teen years in a Lutheran church (although I wasn't a believer then), the article caught me a bit off guard, particularly this statement:

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, known as the E.L.C.A., with 4.6 million members, is now the largest Protestant church in the United States to permit noncelibate gay ministers to serve in the ranks of its clergy.

4.6 million members. Wow! Where is the church heading? No wonder Yeshua asked, When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith?

Gene Shlomovich said...

"Having spent my teen years in a Lutheran church (although I wasn't a believer then), the article caught me a bit off guard, particularly this statement:"

Don't feel too bad about the Lutherans - Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative "Judaisms" today all allow for gay rabbis and unions (at least, unlike Conservatives, Lutherans do not claim to follow the Torah!).

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/07/us/07jews.html

Zion/Jeruz said...

Great post, I think this cuts to one of the hearts of the issue... if the bible applies only 5% to gentiles, then it renders it practically irrelevant for gentiles... keep up the intriguing post...

Isaiah 56:3
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from His people "

Gene Shlomovich said...

"The division between moral and ceremonial is human and superficial at best, and an excuse for sin at worst. (I think to the homosexuality issue currently dividing the Church.)"

Judah, I am not sure I understand your example here - how is homosexuality connected to ceremonial laws (not to mention that IT IS mentioned in NT even more times than in Torah)? I think that this particular sin fits perfectly as a perversion of natural order of things.

James said...

@Gene, Tell that to Conservative Judaism. ;-)

@Zion/Jeruz, That verse speaks to this conversation and to the debate as a whole.

Gene Shlomovich said...

"Isaiah 56:3 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from His people "

Zion/Jeruz - the above may not necessary refer to foreigners becoming part of Israel - it's just that those who attach themselves to G-d are His people (in general - as in they belong to G-d).

For example, we read:

"The L-RD Almighty will bless them, saying, "Blessed be Egypt MY PEOPLE, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance." (Isaiah 19:25)

As you can see from the above example, you can be a unique NATION (as Gentiles will certainly be) while being "His People" at the same time - all without also being "Israel." These things are not mutually exclusive in the Bible.

Zion/Jeruz said...

That verse speaks to this conversation and to the debate as a whole.

And yet BE claims we should be separated from each other... lol, who should you follow, God's Word or maybe BE theology... :P

Gene Shlomovich said...

"And yet BE claims we should be separated from each other..."

Zion/Jeruz, you have a theology of separating yourself from Gentiles worshiping in churches. This about it - OL folks consider themselves "Israelties" while separating themselves from "Christians" at the same time (they would "never" think of going back to 'Sunday' churches).

That is to say that I think it is quite hypocritical of you and of many other OL adherents to accuse Messianic Jews of teaching separation when many MJs (myself included) have something that many OLers lack because of the antagonistic (bordering on hatred in many circles) stance they espouse toward Christianity - a wonderful relationship (personal and ministerial) with Christians .

James said...

Just to clarify a point, I don't consider returning to a traditional Sunday church an option for me personally, as I've outlined in other articles, but that's hardly because I hate the church or the people in it and yes, I still have both personal and, if I can apply the term to myself with any validity, "ministerial" relationships with people who attend churches.

I think it's possible, whether you consider me OL or by some other designation, for a me to attend a worship venue that most suits my personal and theological needs and still maintain positive relationships with people who are lead to attend different worship contexts.

I don't disdain Christians who attend church, nor do I disdain Messianic Jews who attend MJ/BE congregations, I only maintain that I am not bound by the opinions of other worship groups to attend only those houses of faith they deem appropriate for me because I'm a Gentile.

Zion/Jeruz said...

Zion/Jeruz, you have a theology of separating yourself from Gentiles worshiping in churches. This about it - OL folks consider themselves "Israelties" while separating themselves from "Christians" at the same time (they would "never" think of going back to 'Sunday' churches).

That is to say that I think it is quite hypocritical of you and of many other OL adherents to accuse Messianic Jews of teaching separation when many MJs (myself included) have something that many OLers lack because of the antagonistic (bordering on hatred in many circles) stance they espouse toward Christianity - a wonderful relationship (personal and ministerial) with Christians .


At least you did not deny what I said...

The other point is that I am not gung-ho OL, I believe OL to have a lot of arrogance attached to it, especially concerning the place of Oral Law, which is heavily poopoo'ed among OL circles... As for the way people treat each other, cannot be generalized for OL, as it is not a doctrine of OL to hate Christianity, many OL proponents still attend church and do not hold the false accusation you blanketed.

Gene Shlomovich said...

"At least you did not deny what I said..."

Jeruz, I did - I specifically said that you "accuse." The separatism accusation is bogus - I have never met any MJs (including leaders) who even remotely advocated Gentile-free congregations. Instead, we advocate Jewish self-government, establishing communities the way JEWS want them to be, and having Jewish majorities within our own MJ communities. There will always be Gentiles who wish to make their home with us and selflessly, without personal agendas, support what G-d is doing among the Jewish people, those who find their purpose and fulfillment living within MJ communities.

Onesimus said...

How much of the Bible is relevant to gentiles?

100% of it.

Because scripture is NOT a collection of rules and regulations. It is not a manual dictating how Jews and Gentiles should live. It is a revelation of God Himself.

Scripture reveals HIM. From the first sentence to the last it is revealing God, His character and His purposes through historical real life encounters between HIM and mankind.

James said...

Hopefully, I communicated that conclusion or something close to it. ;-)

Efrayim said...

James,

Some thoughts:

John 20:30&31, "Therefore Yeshua did many other signs in the presence of his talmidim, which are not written in this book; but these are written, that you may believe that Yeshua is the Messiah, the Son of YHVH, and that believing you may have life in his name."

John 21:25, "There are also many other things which Yeshua did, which if they would all be written, I suppose that even the world itself wouldn't have room for the books that would be written."

I believe that what we have in hand is what we need to have life in His name. And since all scripture points, in one way or another, to Messiah, then all scripture is meant for those who have life in His name.

As a believer in Messiah I am commanded to walk uprightly before YHVH. Where will I look for the rules on how to walk that walk? Where will I find the power to continue in that walk? Torah and grace work together, they are not mutually exclusive. I need both to walk the walk.

When Yeshua was asked to come and heal the servant of a Roman centurion He did not even hesitate. But when a woman with a demon possessed daughter came to ask for His help, He calls her a dog and tells her that those things are for the "children", not her. A test of faith? Maybe, but Yeshua seems to be making a distinction between Gentiles, a value judgment of persons.

If we are going to assume that Gentiles remain Gentiles no matter what Messiah did or does, then perhaps we should find out which type of Gentile should read which portion scripture. Perhaps that is where all the different denominations come from, not that people can't get along, but that Yeshua reveals different truths to different Gentiles because one is different or better than the other.

It might explain why everyone picks on the Baptists.

Ef