Monday, July 12, 2010

Forks in the Dusty Road

I’ve been thinking about this for awhile. I don’ t know exactly how it’s supposed to work.

Consider this. In general the Judeo-Christian perspective uses the same fundamental document as the basis for our beliefs: the Bible. You would suppose that, since we all use the same authoritative document as our foundation, we'd all have, more or less, the same point of view regarding God, ourselves, and the world in general. Is that really the case?

I remember once sitting in a Bible study class in a church listening to an older gentlemen, who was a retired Pastor, tell us that he'd seen churches split over what color to paint the walls of the fellowship hall. Are we, as believers, really that petty? I suppose we are if that story is true. How many Christian denominations are currently in existence? How many different translations of the Bible are there, just in English? How many different sects of Judaism are there? Can we agree on anything?

I suppose you could use the phrase "drinking the kool-aid" to indicate that we sometimes avoid questioning the assumptions we make about our faith and about the specific methods we choose to express our faith. At least some of us swallow what we've been taught and never think that it could be wrong. Even after deliberate investigation, once we've come to a conclusion, we never look back...or look forward to new information. What makes one method of worship preferable to another? Is there a worship style that God finds more pleasing than others? Is there a right or wrong model for our faith? Are there different models of worship for different people groups?

The last question has been tossed about in the comments sections of a number of my blogs and among the blogs of the MJ and OL movements, particularly in relation to the discussion of the MJ/BE perspective. From that perspective, Jews who are believers in Yeshua as Messiah worship in the manner of the modern synagogue model on the Sabbath and Gentiles who are believers must worship on Sunday in the manner of the modern Evangelical Christian church. I am probably overstating this point, but it does appear as if we are relegated to our particular slots or pidgon holes. How do we know all this is true? Let's talk about some assumptions.

First of all, depending on who you are and your theological framework, what I call "assumptions" may not be assumptions at all from your point of view. You may consider them "facts" or "truth". From my point of view, we all have the same Bible but what we believe that Bible tells us seems to be different depending on our perspective. Here are some examples. I may not get the wording quite right for each group, but hopefully, I’ll come close.

Christian perspective: Jesus came to die for everyone's sins and to replace the Law with Grace for everyone. The covenant promised to the Jews now belongs to the (Gentile) Christians who are "spiritual Israel". If an ethnically and religiously Jewish person wants to worship Jesus, they need to renounce Judaism and convert to Christianity. There is only one path to salvation and that's through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

One Law perspective: Yeshua came to die for the sins of all human beings. The Law or Torah remains intact, just as it was given to the Children of Israel and the Mixed Multitude at Mount Sinai. Both Jewish and Gentile believers in Yeshua are subject to the same Torah and the same commandments and, while both Jews and Gentiles remain distinct people groups, they are all equal inheritors in the covenant promises, both the natural and grafted in branches.

Messianic Jewish/Bilateral Ecclesiology: Yeshua came to die for the sins of human beings, to gather the lost sheep of Israel to himself and correctly interpret the Torah for the Jewish people. He also came for another pen of "sheep", the Gentile people, but Gentiles, as grafted in, are not "spiritual Israel" and are only subject to a subset of the Torah commandments. Jews who have become believers in Yeshua as the Messiah meet in a traditional synagogue setting on Shabbat and keep all of the 613 commandments including kashrut, praying with tzitzit and tefillin, and so on. Gentiles are not subject to these commandments, may worship on any day, are not attached to the laws of kashrut or any other part of Torah, and are expected to worship separately from their Jewish brothers and sisters.

Like I said, I can't promise I got all those assumptions right, but hopefully, I presented at least a fair idea of how these three groups view the same Bible, the same Yeshua/Jesus, and the same God.

Question is, can we all be right? If not, who is right and how can you tell? Even if I go through the Bible and particularly the Apostolic Scriptures with a fine-toothed comb, will I necessarily find the right answer?

When I say "right answer", I mean the one that God considers correct. Here's one of my assumptions. I believe that there's an absolute truth sitting out there somewhere. It's probably sitting right in the Bible if I just knew how to read it the way God wants me to read it. I don't see how all those different perspectives can be correct because they contradict each other. There is one interesting view, though. In some sense, traditional (that is, "non-Messianic") Judaism has a mechanism for them all being "correct".

Some time ago, I reviewed a book called At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden written by Jewish Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi. In this book, Halevi records his own journey of faith through the worship and religious practices of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. In some ways, it was a particularly dangerous journey, but one of his conclusions is that he could see how Christians and Muslims actually connect with God through their individual faith perspectives. He didn't believe that only the Jewish people had a relationship with God, only that the Jewish relationship with God is unique in all the world and among all the peoples. That is, Christians are not Jews and Muslims are not Jews, only Jews are Jews. Nevertheless, Halevi concluded that Jews and Muslims and Christians all had a connection to God.

I had a similar experience with my wife. Our faith perspectives have shifted somewhat away from each other these past few years. These days, she takes classes from the Chabad Rabbi and spends Erev Shabbat in the Rabbi's home with his family. While I admit that our separation in this area has caused me more than a little concern, I have to conclude that she is doing what she needs to do in order to connect to God and to other Jewish people as a Jew. I've been a little worried about how she saw me and my wee, little congregation but she said something amazing to me. She said that she believes I'm doing the right thing. Of course what she means is that I'm doing the right thing for me, but that's OK. She could have had a lot of other reactions that would have been very troubling to our marriage. This, more than any other part of my life, including this series of conversations, has caused me to re-evaluate my assumptions.

Can Messianic Jews say the same thing about believing Gentiles? Can they say we are doing the right thing, for us, but that it's separate from what they're doing? Actually, that's exactly what they're least as far as I can tell. Here's the problem.

Nowhere in the traditional (non-Messianic) Jewish framework, must Gentiles be included nor is there a commandment or even a suggestion that Gentiles be "grafted in" to Israel. On the other hand, the Apostolic Scriptures are very specific about somehow injecting or including or grafting in Gentiles to the Hebrew root so that, Jew and Gentile alike can be nurtured by the same God. I sort of see Gentiles as the "inconvenient truth" of the Messianic movement. If we didn't exist or if the Bible were more explicit about creating a parallel but detached relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers (or if the Bible said Gentiles were grafted into a maple tree in Vermont and Jews were the branches on the olive tree in Israel), we wouldn't be having this conversation and there'd be no arguing. However, the jury seems to still be out on this subject.

My view of MJ/BE (and again, I can be wrong) is that its entire theology and worship is identical to all of the other Judaisms with a single exception: belief that Yeshua/Jesus is the Messiah. MJ sees Gentiles somewhat in the same way as how all the Judaisms see us. Non-Messianic Jews believe God sees Gentiles, knows us, loves us, and has provided a way to salvation via the Noahide Laws. These laws are a very small subset of Torah that comprise the entire set of standards God expects of non-Jews in order to merit a place in the life in the world to come. If you tweak the perspective just slightly, you seem to come up with the MJ perspective, except that Yeshua is included and, in addition to the Jerusalem letter (which functionally is much like the Noahide Laws), faith in Yeshua is all that's required of a Gentile to gain salvation. But is this right and does it work? More importantly, is this what the Bible actually says and is it what God actually means?

You won't find the Noahide laws in the Bible, particularly as how they're applied by Judaism to the Gentiles, but from the Jewish perspective (non-MJ) it's how the Christian church can seem to make sense to a Jew. Nothing in the Noahide Laws presupposes a worship model. That is, as stated at, if Gentiles are supposed to "Respect G-d and Praise Him", how can they do so corporately? Of course, there may be no mandate, from a Jewish point of view, for Gentiles to come together as a group to worship God, but if you love God, it seems to happen that way for most people. The answer, from non-Messianic Judaism’s perspective, is the Christian church. In the church (Jesus aside, as far as Judaism is concerned) we can praise and worship God, respect human life, respect family, respect other people, and respect other creatures. The only other requirement is to have some sort of judicial system, which most nations have in place. That's it.

Does this work for those who have come to faith under the umbrella of Yeshua the Messiah? I use the "umbrella" metaphor because, ultimately, believing Jews and Gentiles all fall under his authority, even if our individual worship practices, theologies, and covenant relationships are different. Because of what it says in the Apostolic Scriptures, believing Jews and Gentiles have a greater connection than non-MJ Jews and Gentiles (believers in Yeshua/Jesus or not). This is where the "problem" exists. This is where the question arises as to just how tied or untied are Messianic Jews and believing Gentiles (of any kind...OL/Christian/whatever)?

That's what I'm looking for and I'm looking for it in the first century. That's the original template. Paul knew the answer to this question. So did Peter. Even in their day, there was a huge issue with figuring out how to integrate Gentiles into a worship of the Jewish Messiah without it being necessary for them to convert to Judaism. Galatians is Paul's primary statement that Gentiles are not required to convert to Judaism in order to come to faith. Look at Acts 10 when Peter and other Jewish people are just completely amazed that Gentiles were able to receive the Holy Spirit. It was revolutionary. It was shocking. It came completely out of left field as far as the Jewish people were concerned. Only the Jews had been able to receive the spirit before. What did it mean? How did it work? What are the Gentiles now that they’ve received the Spirit (or are we anything at all)?

In Acts 11, Peter was criticized by some Jewish people for entering into the home of a Gentile, but when he explained what had happened and how God had made it possible for Gentiles to receive the Spirit and salvation, they had no further arguments and rejoiced in God's power and grace.

But what happened next and what happened after Acts 15? That's where we don't agree. Either there's a universal, absolute, and cohesive answer that is available in the Bible, or we're just going to have to wait until the Messiah comes to straighten this mess out. If the Gospels and the Epistles didn't exist, MJ could apply one flavor or another of the Noahide Laws to the Gentiles and we could either take it or leave it. However, they do exist and no one seems to be able to agree what they mean for the Gentiles.

One thing to think about is that there is no absolute answer. I don’ t know how that works except that any worship style that is not in direct contradiction of the Bible and does not violate the Word or Will of God is accepted by Him. Hard to believe since He was so specific about the Children of Israel and Temple worship. Why is there so much detail about the Temple but virtually no explanation about how to operationally graft Gentiles in to the olive tree?

Let the comments begin.


Gene Shlomovich said...

James, great post, but as always you are so prolific with your words and concepts which you express in a single swoop, that it's hard to even start commenting (as in which idea expressed in the post one should target first?).

I found the comments you made about your Jewish wife's view of what she does (her path - learning/worshiping with Jews in Chabad) and what you as a Gentile do (in your congregation made up, presumably, of mostly non-Jews), you do things separately yet you are still remain united (in marriage, and hopefully much love:), especially interesting. It's as if you guys have a little "microcosm of BE" (Bilateral Ecclesiology) right in your own home!

James said...

Thanks for your comment, Gene. Sorry to be so wordy, but these things just sort of write themselves. I think you commented while I was still trying to correct all the typos.

Jury is still out (for me anyway) as to what sort of communities Paul established for the Gentiles and how they worked (and if any Gentiles were allowed to stick their noses in a Jewish synagogue from time to time).

As it exists, I still am not a fan of BE but then, I'm willing to read Kinzer's book before coming to any firm conclusions. The flaw in your analogy of my marriage as "BE" is that my wife isn't a practicing Messianic. We both started out our marriage as secular people and after almost 30 years, a few changes have happened.

To extend your analogy for a moment, it's not like I've never been to synagogue with her or she's never been to my congregation with me. We share the same home, the same bed (when I don't snore), the same children (and grandchild), and the same life. It's possible to be together, intimate, and to share our lives together and to be different people.

Gene Shlomovich said...

'and if any Gentiles were allowed to stick their noses in a Jewish synagogue from time to time"

James, nobody argues that Gentiles not be allowed in synagogues. That's a sraw man argument. Rather, the real question is should Gentile Judaize themselves and their fellow Gentiles, and whether or not that's the plan of G-d for them to do so. Should they adopt Jewish dress (some proscribed by the scripture and some by custom), Jewish traditions, be subject to Jewish courts, be observant of Torah as given to Moses and interpreted by Jewish sages, live lives virtually indistinguishable from Jews, and EQUALLY participate in Jewish life cycle and synagogue rituals. I'd say that scriptures do not bear this out or speak approvingly of loss of Jewish distinctiveness and Gentile self-Judaizing.

Gentiles have always been, and always be present in synagogues of the Jews. That's not the question or an issue.

James said...

I admit I made that statement somewhat tongue-in-cheek and with the idea of getting a response. While it may be a "non-event" to you, that's not always expressed in these discussions.

I've been having a hard time "getting a bead" on the exact parameters of the MJ/BE belief system, particularly relative to Gentiles. I find, like a an artist creating a sculpture, I am having to chip away at the debris between me and the finished work to get the answers.

This isn't as easy as it may look from someone inside said MJ/BE perspective.

James said...

I know this is probably irrelevant, but since we're talking about questioning assumptions, I thought this article about a physicist questioning the basic theories underpinning gravity deserved a mention. He's flying in the face of the majority, too (and while he might ultimately be found wrong, I don't think he's a nut).

Is gravity real?

Russ said...


I like your questions and a couple of your assumptions. I have some of the the same. And since Gene is being nice today, I will venture out with a question for you.

With the assumption that the Torah is not for Gentiles as a backdrop, how would you consider this verse:

Col. 2:13&14, "When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross."

Why would Sha'ul mention the decrees, that had originated in Torah, as standing against the believers in Colosse? Were they not Greeks? Were they not some of the Gentiles that did not possess or know Torah? How did they come to have specific decrees charged to them out of Torah if they were not expected to keep it?

Before the usual "everyone has Torah written on their hearts" trope gets rolled out, I have one more question.

If all the world stands guilty before YHWH because all have sinned, whether they know it or not, do they not, by virtue of that fact, have some semblance of a relationship to Torah?

And if we can agree that they do, how would those same people after they have come to trust in Messiah, refrain from committing the same transgressions unless they participated in Torah?

The question applies to both Jew and Gentile as both need Messiah for salvation, both need the gift of the Ruach HaKodesh, both need to worship Him in an approved manner, and both need to be adopted into the family of YHWH.

Judah Gabriel Himango said...

Wow. What a prolific post, James! I think you summed up the various views well. And your honesty here shines through. Great post.

>> Why is there so much detail about the Temple but virtually no explanation about how to operationally graft Gentiles in to the olive tree?

That's an excellent question.

My answer: Perhaps because, when Messiah comes and reigns, gentiles will be keeping Israel's Torah, even going up to Israel on feast days, even keeping God's sabbath, even being present in Jerusalem.

If independent Messianics and Bilateral Ecclesiologists can agree on one thing in regards to Torah and gentiles, it is this: that when Messiah comes, gentiles will be keeping the sabbath and the feasts, will be present in Israel and even be selected for service in the Temple.

That's why I say, when Messiah comes, Bilateral Ecclesiology won't exist. :-)

James said...

@Efrayim There seems to be a series of "competing scriptures" in the Bible, that speak for Gentiles observing Torah and some against. Since the Bible (my assumption) is not internally inconsistent, the problem is our interpretation of what God is saying, not that God can't write a consistent Bible. As I mentioned in the blog though, how any given part of the Bible is interpreted varies with a person's point of view.

@Judah The verses you reference certainly point to Gentiles keeping Shabbat and the Festivals in Messianic Days. Question is, can we do so today?

Gene Shomovich said...

"If independent Messianics and Bilateral Ecclesiologists can agree on one thing in regards to Torah and gentiles, it is this: that when Messiah comes, gentiles will be keeping the sabbath and the feasts, will be present in Israel and even be selected for service in the Temple."

We can't agree, because that's not what we read in scriptures.

First, Gentiles are nowhere told that they will be keeping Shabbat and certainly not that they are or will be obligated to do so (a tenet of One-Law movement).

Secondly, the only Jewish holy day that Gentile nations will be specifically required to keep is Sukkot. Most Jewish holy days can only be properly celebrated while in Jerusalem and because of that most of the Jewish observances today are severely curtailed (because we have no Temple). Since the Jewish nations are only required to appear in Jerusalem on Sukkot, we can't claim that other feasts will be celebrated by them in the manner of the Jews.

Thirdly, it while it's true that some Gentiles will be permitted to settle in the Land (as has always been the case, and even today), the interpretation of Isaiah 66:19-24 that Gentiles will be selected to serve in the Temple is bogus and goes against the plain context of those verses (not to mention that traditional Jewish understanding.) It the verse preceeding Isaiah 66:21, it says that "Then they shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as a grain offering to the L-RD"

"I will also take some of THEM for priests and for Levites," says the L-RD." (Isaiah 66:21)

It's interesting that there's no word "THEM" in the Hebrew text (but but many translations still insert it). There's no legal basis to link strictly-hereditary offices of Kohen and Levite to the Gentiles who are bringing Israelites back to Jerusalem in the preceding verse. Even regular Jews without Levitical ancestry are forbidden from levitical or priestly duties.

What brethren are these Gentiles bringing to Jerusalem? The Israelites, of course. We read earlier is Isaiah 49:22:

"This is what the Sovereign L-rd says: “See, I will beckon to the Gentiles, I will lift up my banner to the peoples; they will bring your sons in their arms and carry your daughters on their shoulders.”

So, it's quite clear who is being brought back.

Not so much in agreement after all...

Russ said...

Crazy as it may be, I'm going to have to go with Gene on this one.

The word "them" does not appear in the Hebrew text at Isaiah 66:21.

Even David Stern puts it in there as does the Stone Edition Tanach. Go figure.

Everything else I disagree with, of course.

Gene Shomovich said...

"The word "them" does not appear in the Hebrew text at Isaiah 66:21."

Actually, I just read directly from Hebrew (instead of being lazy and using Strong numbers under English words which do not correspond in all cases), and there's indeed word "them" there. But traditional Jewish interpretation doesn't change: "them" refers to the "brethren" (Israelites) mentioned in the preceding verse as being brought back to Israel from the nations and by the nations.

Russ said...

I read the Hebrew as well and found that, according Brown, Driver, Briggs the form:

vav gimel mem, which does not correspond directly to the inclusive, rather it carries the "therefore also" verb root of the gimel mem. I suppose it could include "them", but it is not the word "otam" which means "them".

I'm certainly no scholar, but it is hard to see where the idea of "them" comes from except the previous verses.

And that would not be out of the question as Messiah is already taking from all the nations and making one nation with one King.

Dan Benzvi said...

The words וגם מהם -vegam mehem- means "and also from them..." Now you do the math.

Russ said...

"and also from them" is the prevalent rendering for verse 21. I can't argue with that.

v'Gam meHem

OK Gene, you are right, it is there. Therefore your interpretation is incorrect. YHWH does take from among the nations and make them priests and Levites. Must be the returning Israelites.

James said...

Not to shoot myself in the foot, but I also read the verse in question as God bringing the Jewish people out of the nations (though no Hebrew language scholar am I).

Gene Shlomovich said...

"Therefore your interpretation is incorrect. YHWH does take from among the nations and make them priests and Levites. Must be the returning Israelites."

Efrayim, actually that makes us in [sort of] complete agreement:) Both of us read this verse as Israelites returning from the nations and G-d taking out Levites and priests out of them.

The only question you have to ask yourself, if Gentiles are really Israelites themselves, who are then all those Gentiles bringing Israelites/Jews (the sons and daughters) back to the Land of Israel in Isaiah 49:22?

"This is what the Sovereign L-rd says: “See, I will beckon to the Gentiles, I will lift up my banner to the peoples; THEY (Gentiles) will bring your sons in their arms and carry your daughters on their shoulders.”

Zion/Jeruz said...

Everyone is talking about whether or not Gentiles should follow Torah, interesting article from

Russ said...

I do not say that all Gentiles are Israelites. I say what scripture says, that the Israelites from the northern tribes are out among, mixed in and unrecognizable from the Gentiles.

That is until now.


James said...

Thanks for the link to the article, Jeruz. I thought this especially interesting:

Thirdly, at Mt. Sinai the Torah was no longer just a wisdom, but a command. Until then, it was up to the individual whether he wished to practice it or not. From then on, every adult Jew became responsible to fulfill all the Torah.

If Torah was "a wisdom" for Adam, Noah, and other non-Jewish people prior to the actual giving of the Torah at Sinai, can today's non-Jewish believers still respond to Torah as a "wisdom" if not a command?

Gene Shlomovich said...

"If Torah was "a wisdom" for Adam, Noah, and other non-Jewish people prior to the actual giving of the Torah at Sinai, can today's non-Jewish believers still respond to Torah as a "wisdom" if not a command?"

The question is not whether Torah (Written/Mosaic or "moral/implanted in the hearts of all mankind") is a good thing for Gentiles and whether it is applicable to them, but rather WHICH parts of Written Torah are applicable to them and which parts were given exclusively to Israel (as either plainly mentioned as such or implied by many geographic and tribe-specific limitations of many of the commandments). After all, the Noahide Laws are also part of Torah. Therefore, Gentiles keeping Noahide Laws are being just as "Torah-observant" as the most "ultra" of Ultra-Orthodox Jews.

James said...

Gene, you bring up an excellent point. Generally OL Gentiles believe they are obligated to obey the Torah and bristle when told they aren't. The question is how you define "Torah". Usually OL Gentiles draw a line between written and oral so that, they will refrain from eating a pork chop but still enjoy a cheeseburger.

The comment I quoted earlier somewhat related to the current FFOZ concept of "Divine Invitation", which I can't actually find anywhere in the Bible. If MJ/BE groups believe Gentiles aren't commanded to say, rest on the Shabbat, what if I choose to do so anyway?

Mike said...

"Even if I go through the Bible and particularly the Apostolic Scriptures with a fine-toothed comb, will I necessarily find the right answer?"

I realize this is probably a rhetorical question, it seems to address the "vagueness" of some parts of scripture. Most notably the ones commonly argued over here, and on similar blogs. Perhaps the scriptures were put together that way out of design, as a way to keep us engaged with each other over issues. This keeps us pouring over the Bible over and over to reinforce our points, sometimes learning new things in the process.

Thats been my experience so far. As a lifelong member of a church, I was "fed" theology and church doctrine. In the last 8 months, a few things happened to me. I moved, and began a journey to define my faith, and began questioning all those things I was taught. I started trolling these blogs, and began reading from authors I otherwise never would have (Twerski for example).
Now, when people here disagree on stuff, it encourages me to look up scripture they site to read it for myself, along with my normal study routine. Thus,my learning is much more fruitful, and my interest is continually peaked.
If there were black and white, clearly defined "rules" in the Bible, this process would not happen. Just thinking here!!

James said...

Rhetorical questions? Maybe.

What I'm trying to get at is that our interpretation of the Bible is determined by our theology, education, biases, and a variety of other factors. If the Bible were a completely objective document that could only be interpreted in one way, we would all come to a single conclusion and that would be that.

How do I determine if say, the Baptist view of the Bible is dead on vs. how Catholics or Mormons see the Bible or for that matter, how Messianic Jewish/Bilateral Ecclesiology proponents see the Bible.

Right now, I see interpreting the Bible sort of like scientific study. You can never "prove" something is right, you can just support your argument by "observation" (and I know I'm going to get in trouble for making such a statement).