I get a regular stream of emails with questions about something someone read on Messianic Jewish Musings. Sometimes these come from regular readers and sometimes from people who ran across something on a google search. The questioners often are surprised by something they read here. It is not from the paradigm of theology they are used to. And they wonder what I believe about this or that or how I would defend my views.
Toward the end of creating a place for people to understand Messianic Jewish theology the way I see it, I am creating this post with a summary of certain big points in my theology. These are not chosen for being the most important or as a comprehensive list. They are chosen as the sort of un-ordinary beliefs, the ideas most likely to catch a person from a Christian or Jewish paradigm by surprise. I know that un-ordinary is not a word in regular use. But I didn’t want to say “strange beliefs” on the one hand or “extraordinary beliefs” on the other. And “out of the ordinary” might have worked, but it too didn’t quite capture it for me.
This post is just a summary of some key un-ordinary beliefs. I am not attempting here to give evidence for any of them, though I will say a little in order to explain and at least show that there is some reason for a person to consider them.
I welcome responses to any and all of them. Which ones do you have trouble affirming? Which ones do you adamantly disagree with? As always, my request is that we keep the dialogue respectful.
Jewish people have a covenantal responsibility to the Torah of Moses. This covenantal obligation is not somehow erased through faith in Messiah Yeshua. Jews do not leave Jewish life or Torah faithfulness at the door upon setting out to follow Yeshua. The Law-free statements in Paul are not addressed to Jews in the congregation of Messiah. Acts 15 questions a non-Jew’s relationship to Torah but assumes that for Jews in Yeshua, Torah is the way of life. Christians who doubt Messianic Jewish obligation to Torah should consider Acts 21:24 and should also ask, “Why would following a Jewish Messiah lead to Jewish rejection of the way of life God revealed to Israel and called permanent for all generations?” As Mark Kinzer has famously pointed out: The historic Jewish “no” to Jesus has been a “yes” to God. In other words: Christians have sought to convert Jews to Christianity, asking them to leave behind the commandments God gave to Israel. Presented with this false requirement, no wonder most Jews have not taken Jesus seriously. This conversion gospel makes no sense and it divides God. But this is not to say we believe in the continuing covenantal obligation of Jewish people to Torah because it is pragmatic. We believe in commandedness, the sacred obligation of all people to obey God in that which he commands them. His commandments are not burdensome, the apostles tell us, but are filled with love.
The Torah includes sign commandments that distinguish Israel as the priestly nation. Circumcision, dietary law, Sabbath, the wearing of fringes, and a few more commandments are not universal matters of righteousness, but identity markers for the chosen nation. Noah was not commanded to circumcise and neither was his diet restricted (except for eating blood and meat strangled to preserve the blood in it). Rather, Noah was uncircumcised (in spite of a midrashic tradition to the contrary) and allowed to eat all living things (even pigs). Neither did the apostles mandate circumcision for non-Jews in Messiah or restrict their diet beyond the blood prohibition. Acts 15 indicates that the sign commandments of Torah do not obligate non-Jews. Some interpreters try to use Acts 15:21 as a text to reverse the meaning of Acts 15 (as if the non-Jews in Messiah would slowly start keeping Torah), but this reading of Acts 15 is only a way of controverting the apostles. Further, the Torah itself evidences a distinction in God’s requirement for Israel and the nations (Exod 31:13; Gen 17:10; Lev 12:3; Deut 14:21; Num 15:38). These commandments were never given to the righteous of the nations.
The apostles recognize two distinct branches in the congregation of Messiah. Peter and James led the way in the mission to the Jewish people and Paul, Barnabas, and others led the mission to the Gentiles. The Jerusalem congregation prayed at the Temple, kept Sabbath, and was characterized by zeal for the Torah according to Acts. The congregations in the diaspora (outside Israel) looked to the Jerusalem congregation as the mother. James, not Peter, presided over the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 because James was the leader of the Jerusalem congregation. The Jewish Yeshua-followers remained a part of synagogue life in the diaspora and at first the Gentile Yeshua-believers did as well. Yet Paul’s letters evidence the formation of congregations outside the synagogue which were for the Gentiles and which were Law-free (by Law-free I mean not bound to the sign commandments of Torah–I don’t mean they were libertines). Paul distinguished Jews and Gentiles (Rom 11:17-21) and did not erase distinction. Much of the difficulty in recognizing this distinction between the Jewish and Gentile wing of the congregation of Messiah is because much of it was assumed by the apostles. They would never advocate Jews in Messiah abandoning Torah and this realization is the unspoken assumption behind Acts and the epistles. In spite of the lack of clarity on this matter, a number of Christian and Jewish scholars have arrived at such a theological position as detailed in Mark Kinzer’s Postmissionary Messianic Judaism.
Israel’s election as the chosen people of God is not replaced by the church’s election. There are many kinds and forms of supersessionism (replacement theology). The common form is Christianity assuming that Israel has forfeited her place and the church has stepped in. Incautious readings of Yeshua’s parables and Paul’s epistles have furthered this sad movement in history. Yet Paul’s statements in Romans and particularly in Romans 11 ought to make clear that Israel has not been cast off. The seed of Abraham remains the nation of God and redemption continues to work through Israel and will culminate with Israel. Another kind of supersessionism has risen in the recent Torah movements loosely associated with Messianic Judaism (Hebrew Roots, One Law, Two House) and involve non-Jews assuming Israel’s place as the Torah-keeping people and equating themselves with Israel on the basis of phrases in the New Testament such as “grafted in” and “commonwealth of Israel.” Israel in the flesh resists its own election (as Michael Wyschogrod poignantly observes) but cannot rid itself of this covenantal connection with God. Christianity too often disdains Israel, but as Markus Barth has gracefully observed, “no Gentile can have communion with Christ or with God unless he also has communion with Israel.” Yet for many Christians, that communion with Israel is unrecognized. The God of Jesus is the God of Israel and there is no other God. And God’s curse remains on those who dishonor Israel (Gen 12:3).
Messianic Jews are both “the Church in Israel” and “Israel in the Church.” This form of expression is found in Karl Barth, a theologian whose works I do not read but who has coined some useful terminology here (Church Dogmatics II.2, 235, 273; see Kinzer p. 176). As the “Church in Israel,” Messianic Jews represent Yeshua and the renewal only he can bring to the Jewish people. Messianic Jews are Messiah’s leaven amongst the chosen people. As “Israel in the Church,” Messianic Jews represent the link between Christians and Jews. The very existence of Messianic Jews is vital to the Church’s claim that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. The relationship between Messianic Jews and Israel is of one character and between Messianic Jews and the Church is of another character. There is solidarity with both. Messianic Jews must not remove themselves from Judaism and the Jewish people. But Messianic Jews must also maintain relations with Christianity as brothers and sisters in Messiah. A Messianic Judaism that is anti-Judaism is false and in danger of denying God’s work amongst the chosen people not only in the past and future, but also in the present. A Messianic Judaism that is anti-Christianity is equally false and in danger of denying God’s work amongst the nations. There is a lack of holiness and health in all forms of Judaism and Christianity, but God does not reject either and so we must not reject what God loves.
The renewal of Israel (the Jewish people) will come only in and through Yeshua. A Messianic Judaism which downplays Yeshua is anathema. Messianic Judaism represents the people within Israel who recognize and serve the Messiah of Israel as the only redeemer and healer sent by God to restore Israel and heal the world. If we deny him before men he will deny us before the Father. Our commitment to the way of Yeshua must show in our actions so that our words will be heard. It is insufficient to evangelize. We must be the people of Yeshua. We must reflect the values of Yeshua as Jews keeping the covenant and working for the healing of the world.
Responding to a comment, I came up with a list of points that is a good corrective to some ideas about Gentile relationships to Torah and Israel that arise in Hebraic Roots groups:
1) Non-Jewish followers of Messiah are not Israel, but are now in the commonwealth of Israel.
(2) Full Torah observance is neither an obligation nor a higher way for Christians.
(3) Jews and Gentiles remain distinct in roles and equivalent in blessing.
(4) The distinction will not disappear in the world to come.
(5) Israel is the Chosen People through descendancy from Jacob and Israel’s election is free and irrevocable.
(6) Christianity is not any more or less guilty before God than Judaism.