Blowing away the dust of history (part two)

A couple of weeks ago we began to explore the encounter between Yeshua and an esteemed Torah scholar and community leader called Nicodemus. The encounter highlighted some conceptual and theological breakpoints between general Jewish understanding at the time and the focus that Yeshua brought to Judaism. If Nicodemus had so completely misunderstood the concept of salvation, earning him a gentle rebuke from Yeshua, what else had he or might he have had missed?
One of the clash points between Messianic Judaism and other forms of Judaism is the idea of salvation itself. Consistently throughout all the Torah, and in our wider Jewish consciousness, we know and read that G-d is our salvation, and only HE can offer it and fully provide for it. That is stated in many places in the Scriptures, for example, Is 43:11-14a, Is 49:26, and Is 60:16. G-d is our salvation.These, and many others, are the verses often quoted by some in other forms of Judaism who are antagonistic towards us as Messianic Jews. And in all honesty, you can’t argue with the verses, that is what they say. The implications given to the verses, however, is wrong. So how is it that in Messianic Judaism, and even for those very first Messianic Jews of the first century, we believe and teach that Yeshua is our salvation, and therefore by implication, Yeshua is, must be, G-d?
To answer this we need to unpack something called ‘Identity theology’. There is an example of this happening in the Besorah (Good News) recorded by Luke (Lk 7:11-17). There we read that after an encounter with Yeshua the people declared ‘G-d has visited his people’ (referring to Yeshua). The key question here is: How did they know? Yeshua didn’t tell them, yet the group there at that moment knew G-d had appeared in their midst. They knew because of what Yeshua DID, not what He preached, what He DID. He was able to revoke the power of death, reverse therefore the effects of sin on life and thus demonstrate Himself to be more powerful than sin and be able to overcome its consequences. Only G-d can do that. Freedom from sin, deliverance, redemption and salvation are events far more than theology, and G-d is known by His acts, actions and events. We ‘know’ G-d is able to set free because He did it and does it. So we know that He is by nature a G-d who releases people rather than brings them into bondage. It is why G-d consistently calls to mind the deliverance from Egypt as a key character statement of who He is. G-d IS salvation, and we see Him ACT in that way because it is His character, His identity. By saving, delivering and bringing us out of Egypt He is only being true to His nature and essence.
In he Second Isaiah section the prophet develops this ‘second’ Exodus motif in a deeper spiritual way, not merely physical this time but a deeper redemption. The passages culminate in the Suffering Servant by whose death this redemption is brought about. What is extraordinary about this is that this suffering servant pattern or template revealed by the prophet of humiliation and rejection followed by exaltation and acceptance becomes the definitive revelation of who G-d is. This singular act as it breaks into history is THE experience of G-d that ultimately defines Him. In the Messianic Writings we see the same conceptual understanding applied to Yeshua: He is the Saviour (the same term used in Tanach for G-d) who brings salvation (see Lk 2:11, 1 Jn 4:14). By His sacrificial death He fully develops the Jewish concept of deliverance and salvation, a release for freedom, free to live as G-d wants us to live. The links are clear; G-d IS salvation, it is His identity. He sends His salvation to us, His Son Yeshua, both are salvation, It’s not that His name just means it, He IS it. By Yeshua’s ACTIONS He proved that He is salvation and He is G-d. He overcame death and sin in His own body. Yes, all of this is in fact obvious from and in Judaism, although in other forms of Judaism this has been masked and concealed. Yeshua IS salvation, and thus Yeshua IS G-d. He is the embodiment, the physical shape of salvation, who Is G-d. Yeshua carries the identity of G-d in Himself. As Yeshua Himself said in Jn 5, He must do ‘the works the Father has given him to FINISH’. Yeshua’s works of salvation were not new in the first century, He had been doing them for a long time as the agent of salvation in history. But He did need to FINISH them, draw the idea of salvation to its conclusion. And that Yeshua did in His own death and resurrection, a sacrifice for sins that would truly set people free.
Blowing away the dust of history (part one)

Blowing away the dust of history (part one)

Some time ago a friend of mine was ‘chewing the theological cud’ with me about the vision and meaning of Messianic Judaism and made a comment that surprised me but caused me to think too. His comment (paraphrased) ran something like this: ‘It was Luther who invented the ‘saved by faith’ doctrine, so why does Messianic Judaism (as a branch of Judaism considerably pre-dating Luther) insist on teaching something that only Protestantism or later Evangelicalism teaches?’ His concern was real; to do so would be to undermine the actual foundations of Judaism and replace them with something else alien to the Torah and Judaism.

The question quite legitimately throws up some real issues about the core teaching and identity of Messianic Jews and Judaism. And the answer, although simple and obvious, leads us to ponder a much deeper Jewish issue of our own time.
Messianic Judaism is far from being the iconoclastic form of Judaism that it is often portrayed as being. It stands often accused of betraying core Jewish ideals and teachings, yet Messianic Judaism is at its heart a call to renewal and restoration in Judaism. The clue is in the ‘re-‘, for we are about taking core Jewish ideas and teachings afresh from the source document and texts that have forever framed Judaism (Torah) and applying them anew through the redemptive actions of G-d through Yeshua Mashichaynu (the Jewish Messiah). Our call as Messianic Jews is to re-establish the Jewish spiritual home and see a return to themes and ideas, concepts actually inherent in Judaism but covered up by the dust of history and lost in the diaspora theological development of the last 2000 years. The ‘saved by faith’ comment is one such concept that was not invented by Luther, nor yet even discovered by him, but if anything was ‘rediscovered’. The first converts to ‘Judaism’ (I use the term in its wider popular usage), were Avraham and Sarah. They were not born Jewish yet were counted as belonging to G-d not by dint of birth, nor by the high level of their observance (Torah was yet over 400 years away), but because of their faith. As the Torah says (in an uncomfortable truth kind of way), the righteousness of G-d was counted or reckoned to Avraham because of his faith alone. No person can stand before G-d and survive unless our righteousness matches His, and the way to achieve this is laid out in the Torah for this to happen: by faith alone. Luther at best rediscovered this ancient truth and recognised the reality of it for himself and for a deeper return to a true walk with G-d. But it had been there all the time. And it was Jewish.

But it got me wondering about the deeper issue of our own time: what else is there that our people simply are not seeing because of the dust of history. Leaving aside the obvious for one moment, the identity of Messiah, there surely must be more in the Judaism/ Torah archaeological dig that will be unearthed. And it reminded me of an encounter that Yeshua had with a man called Nicodemus, a Jewish ‘ruler’ (possibly a Sanhedrin member?) of the first century. He came to Yeshua at night to conceal his embarrassment of having any association with Him, and is told that no person can see the Kingdom of G-d unless he or she is born again. Nicodemus’ reply as to ‘how can this be?’ drew a gentle (but humbling) rebuke from Yeshua: ‘you are a leading teacher in Israel and do not know these things?’. Indeed, there DOES appear to be more, much more that even the best of our Sages and rabbis have missed. And Yeshua names it in one: salvation, being born again. He effectively says this idea, the redemption, salvation motif is the central core idea in Judaism. Not for nothing was this concept the central stage event of Jewish history in the Exodus, even granting the Lord His epithet ‘the Lord your G-d who brought you out of Egypt’. But this salvation and redemptive act was not meant to be just physical but spiritual too. Just as Pharaoh had oppressed us, so too does sin and in some ways this has proven to be a much harder taskmaster than Pharaoh. In essence Yeshua says that Judaism and the Jewish people who live it out have at the core the message of deliverance and freedom from sin through atonement. It is our raison d’etre. Jews, Israel exists to shine a light of deliverance, salvation and redemption to a dark world. So that ALL who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.

G-d with human names

It is very fashionable to talk about emerging spirituality in these modern times. You see congregations of all types, but increasingly Jewish and Christian, who feel the need to throw of the perceived (or otherwise) shackles of the past, to open up communities to more contact, to speak to a younger internet-savvy and media-rich generation for whom community increasingly means something very different. Such an approach to spirituality may appeal to many whereby doctrine and belief take a step back and lifestyle and life choices configure the format of our existences. Whatever ‘buzzwords’ we may want to attach to such expressions of modern faith, there is one concept that can struggle to gain the limelight it truly deserves: the G-d of Israel is not god. We do not worship a generic deity, god, who injects spirituality into our lives to ensure that the latest wellness mode of life is fully rounded and explored. That god is truly a ‘broad church’
We, as Jews, worship and believe in the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov. That He adds this epithet tells us so much about who G-d is. He is not a distant deity, unknowable, ethereal, impossible to experience, utterly ‘other’ and therefore unrecognisable. Despite the fact that for many of our people this sadly IS the reality in their daily experience of G-d, the Torah does NOT see G-d in this way. That He has names of real individuals in history attached to Him and His name tells us that He is the G-d who has broken through into their lives in a real way. The three Patriarchs have their names attached because they personally knew Him and walked with Him in a way that demonstrated not only their active faith but HIS actual reality and presence. We know what G-d is like when we examine their lives. The interaction between G-d and man illustrates so much of who G-d is, He is literally revealed through real situations. ‘I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of Egypt’ is not so much a historical event as a declaration of character. We know who He is, how He is by what we see and experience of Him. To know Him only by what the texts say is to have a very two-dimensional view of the living G-d of Israel.
In Judaism, and in Messianic Judaism par excellence, we see the gap between the ‘G-d idea’ and ‘G-d alive’ removed. He is not merely an idea, a theological concept, a necessary spiritual understanding for life. He lives and has revealed Himself often to us as a nation and through history. With Chanukah now on the horizon we are reminded that as He broke through INTO human reality in time and space we saw with our own eyes the nature and character of G-d Not surprisingly then do we see Yeshua during the season of Chanukah declare ‘I am the Light of the world’, a life lived through whom we could and still do see the reality of the presence of the G-d of Israel.