A text without a context is a pretext. Thus begins the argument about hermeneutics and textual interpretation when someone disagrees with us! The problem, of course, is more serious than the stock answer may suggest. There are genuine disagreements about what ‘the facts’ are in any given situation, and none more so than when it concerns such crucial issues as to the identity and person of the Mashiach, the Messiah predicted and prophesied in the Torah and Jewish literature. And in a world of ‘fake news’ and institutionalised gaslighting, the need for concrete facts and truth has never been more needed. Thus it is to Maimonides that we should turn, one of the ‘greats’ in Judaism whose words carry so much weight and whose wisdom has helped so many to understand the (Jewish) world.
One of his famous quotes reads: ‘Accept the truth from wherever it comes’. On the face of it this sounds like a very wise statement, and indeed it is. Truth is truth, and as they say, it will out. Yet the sad reality is that Rambam’s words have never truly been taken to heart. As the leader of a Messianic Jewish revival group in the first century, Yeshua declared that He is the way, the truth and the life. Seen objectively He is saying that through Him these ideas fully take flesh and are visible for all to see. If Judaism represents the truth (and it does), then Yeshua must therefore embody Judaism and its sacred principles and ideas in His every action, thought and word. Messianic Jews have no problem with this concept of course, but there remain many in other forms of Judaism for whom this reality is still afar off, and who fail to see Yeshua as a person of history in any other way than controversial.
However, if we take the statement ‘accept the truth from wherever it comes’ at face value, it is not enough to merely apply it to the teaching of Yeshua and hope it is accepted. The statement demands an examination of sources. All truth is examined for its veracity in the light of trustworthy communicators and reliable trusted sources. In other words, what is said (the text) is tested against multiple sources and responsible research (context). The single most important context that we can research for this is the nature and character of G-d as revealed in the Torah and Tanach. If the words and teachings of Yeshua match up with the revealed and researched nature and teachings of the Lord G-d of Israel, then we must de facto take them seriously and accept the truth of them, even if they come from places we may not like.
So what is the revealed nature and character of our G-d? That can be summarised in one sentence: I am the Lord your G-d who brought you up from the land of Egypt. G-d is the One who delivers, redeems, saves and sets free. It is His primary nature as revealed in the Torah. The question then remains for many of our brethren who reject Yeshua on the basis of historical animosity rather than research and examination of the sources, does Yeshua’s teaching in any way contravene the nature of salvation, redemption and deliverance we know to be true of G-d? Many Messianic Jews today are discovering that it does not. What do YOU think?
Accept the truth from wherever it comes.
This last part of the Nicodemus series examines an element that was clearly missed in the first century and most certainly would have been met with a surprised response from the learned Nicodemus, despite his vast knowledge of Torah and Judaism. The difficulty as always is joining the dots to make sense, in a cohesive way, of what we are reading in the Scriptures.
This last area touches upon the nature and definition of righteousness, and more importantly HOW we achieve it. Judaism poses us with a dilemma: An infinite G-d who reveals His righteousness to mankind through the Torah, His absolute standards of holiness and consecration, and then apparently sets us up to fail. I say apparently, because there is not one person alive or dead who has ever kept the Torah and its standard of righteousness. King Shlomo put it this way in 1 kings 8:46 ‘there is no one who does not sin’. Rav Shaul put it in a similar fashion: ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of G-d’. The definition of sin is breaking a commandment and you can therefore hear the desperate heart cry of the followers of Yeshua Mashichaynu in Matt 19:25 who asked ‘who then can be saved?’ Yeshua’s answer is interesting: ‘With man this is impossible, but with G-d all things are possible.’ In essence He is saying that man can never reach that level of righteousness needed to enter the Kingdom, to be a part of Israel now and in eternity. But G-d CAN make a way for this to happen.
To be fair to our brothers in the first century, the Prushim (Pharisees) have been given a very, and undeservedly, bad press. Yeshua’s castigation was not laid against them because they were not righteous, far from it, but because their righteousness was not enough! Matt 5:20 makes this clear; our righteousness as Jews must EXCEED that of this particular sub-group in Judaism of the first century. Nicodemus would, in all likelihood given his background, have fully identified with the level of righteousness demonstrated by this sect of Judaism, and more importantly their approach to achieving it. The question then becomes how to exceed this level of righteousness, given that these men had indeed a level of righteousness and were Torah observant? If they failed to meet the mark, still struggling with sin (and they did), then what hope does anyone have? Again, Yeshua’s words point the way ‘with G-d all things are possible’.
So how DO we achieve a level of righteousness that will allow us access to G-d’s presence? Thankfully the Lord has not left us to work this out for ourselves. One of His own names is Adonai Tzidkenu, the Lord our righteousness. Our G-d IS our righteousness and we have to have His righteousness given to us if we are ever to be righteous enough. The next question then becomes, how do we receive such a righteousness? Do we have to earn it, pay for it, or just receive it? Is it dependent upon us at all? The answer is maybe surprising for those who have worked within the parameters of more recent forms of Judaism. The model of righteousness turns out to be Avraham avinu, who because of his faith, or better faithfulness in response, was given G-d’s righteousness, freely and undeservedly despite his own personal sin. G-d justified him because of his response towards what G-d was promising. If we can understand that this transactional act between G-d and man occurs through faith alone, then we can understand one of Rav Shaul’s most misquoted and misunderstood verses. In his letter to the Jewish community in Rome (3:21) he states that ‘now the righteousness of G-d apart from the Torah has been revealed’. Most read this as if the Torah was therefore abrogated. Not at all. It IS most definitely the righteous standard of G-d revealed. The problem is we can’t keep it. But by being credited with that righteousness, the very righteousness of G-d through faith instead of through obedience, it IS now possible to be righteous before G-d. This is what the verse means and is critical to understanding Rav Shaul. This is no abrogation of Torah but a strong affirmation of it. ‘Apart from’ does not mean ‘instead of’.
Only by being credited with G-d’s own righteousness do we stand a chance of ever standing in His presence, a core desire and aim of Judaism. The writer to the Hebrews puts it in a radical way: (a) boldness to enter the Holy of Holies. This is no sacrilegious or iconoclastic act, but an understanding that through faith salvation can come, and that through the sacrifice that He alone could bring for our sins: Yeshua. With faith making righteousness possible we can come fully into His presence and not fear death.
In last week’s Jewish Chronicle the columnist Ben Judah (p42)dared to state an uncomfortable, nay even in some quarters downright inconvenient, truth: Judaism has always been, and was designed to be from the outset, an outreach and converting religion. As the column author points out, some of our most longstanding ‘greats’, the best Jewish leaders, commentators and scholars have all been converts. Avraham avinu was himself a convert from idolatry, his conversion through the demonstration of his faith, made him the first ‘Jew’ from whom and through whom we are all descendants by birth or faith. The list continues unabated through the Torah, the souls Avraham ‘gained’ at Haran, Calev, Rachav, the Egyptians and many other nationalities who made up the mixed multitude leaving Egypt, Ruth etc etc. That Yonah the Jewish prophet should be sent to the gentiles to preach repentance may shock the spiritually faint-hearted, yet it is undeniably true; the big fish making sure that Yonah could not avoid his divine calling and task. Our very calling as a nation is to shine the light of the Lord out into this ever-increasingly dark world of sin and corruption. Such a message is even literally ‘built in’ to the synagogue buildings we inhabit: the building according to halacha must have windows to enable the internally held Light to pour out into the world.
And as we know, moths are drawn to the light, and gentiles are drawn to the Light. As much as our relationship with the world around us has informed and formed our desire to reach out over the ages (our times of persecution negatively impacting on our zeal to include), nevertheless the indisputable truth is that Judaism as a faith sees itself as a welcoming home for all and any who wish to dwell with the G-d of Israel and know the Jewish Mashiach (Messiah). In the first century as the many thousands of gentile converts were embracing Judaism through the teachings of Yeshua Mashichaynu, receiving the salvation offered through the nature and character of the G-d of Israel as seen in Yeshua’s own sacrificial death, we read how Rav Shaul developed a drash on the Olive Tree metaphor to illustrate the relationship and pattern that he saw being established in Israel. Far from being a negative appendage to Judaism, he recognised by his ‘Tree’ illustration that gentile converts ADDED to Israel, bringing a fresh perspective and view on the treasures of the Torah. With this fresh vibrancy came a renewing and revitalising of our people. And with it came a warning that these new members should NOT boast against the branches that supported and welcomed them… tragically a warning that went unheeded to the shame of history.
Judaism is convert-friendly by nature, as Ben Judah correctly states. Messianic Judaism is and should be convert-friendly by default design. So it was with great sadness that I read this last week of an international Messianic organisation who have now, apparently, decided that the default position should be to marginalise such a theological and fundamentally pro-human position. Indeed, the thoughts contained in this blog as I have expressed them elsewhere, have been described as ‘not mainstream’ by those who see themselves as part of this Messianic revival. Be that as it may, conversion is one of the core beliefs of Judaism and we shall over time see this as one of the largest conceptual leaps undertaken by Messianic Judaism to be seen as not just Messianic, but as a JUDAISM.
Over the last few weeks we’ve been putting together a thread of answers to the potential issue of what Nicodemus might have not understood in the Judaism of his day, that earned him the gentle rebuke by Yeshua. As for so many of us, whether we believe in Yeshua or not as Jews, there will always be things that we simply do not see and comprehend, due to our human weakness and spiritual blindness. Last time we examined the role and place of sacrifice in Judaism and concluded that it was central to everything that Judaism should be. With the destruction of the Temple a key element of Judaism, its atonement function for us as a nation and for all the nations, vanished. We saw how for Messianic Jews that key substitutionary action was taken over by Yeshua and embedded in His own vicarious sacrifice, a final sin offering that actually met the righteous demands of G-d and equalled our own sin.
There is another area attached to sacrifice that cannot be overlooked either, and one that does not have a high profile in modern forms of Judaism outside of Messianic Judaism. This second area is the actual place for sacrifice. The Mishkan, and later Temple, stood at the heart of Jewish practice and belief, and not just for the sacrifices as important as they are/were. The original command was to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, in the centre of the community travelling through the desert. He filled this place with His Spirit, His Presence and it was seen visibly and tangibly with a column of fire and cloud. As G-d moved, like a Father taking His child’s hand, so we moved. So what does this tell us now, and maybe for Nicodemus, about a key point missed? In Shemot (Exodus) 33:12-14 Moshe pleads with G-d to go with them. Moshe is aware that this crucial element is vital to Israel’s success. Without ‘G-d with us’ we are lost as a people and nation. But actually G-d’s own desire in this was much closer to the spiritual reality. In Shemot 25:8, and 29:45-46 we read that It was always G-d’s desire to dwell in our midst, or amongst us. HIS desire to be with us predates ours to be with Him. This is something much closer. The Mishkan and later Temple structure enabled the very visible presence of G-d to be right at the heart of our community and people, and sacrifice made that possible. G-d physically and visibly dwelt in the Mishkan and first Temple; He truly was in our midst. The offering of sacrifices and the manifestation of His Presence are linked; when the sacrifice offered is accepted His Presence goes with you/ us as a nation. So we find that Temple and sacrifice are the key to having G-d with us as He desires, a concept central to Judaism: His presence bringing salvation, deliverance and redemption.
Lastly, let us not forget that with the destruction of the Temple in 70CE we might think that this central plank had been removed. Not so. The concept of course is larger than merely that Yeshua’s sacrifice now stands in the place of the animal sacrifices offered on the altar. In fact, as the Messianic Writings show, the believers who now accept Yeshua become the living Temple themselves, carrying within themselves the results of the daily offerings of Yeshua’s sacrifice. Just as the moveable Mishkan trekked through the desert ‘advertising’ the Presence and reality of the living G-d of Israel, so too do we today in our daily walks of life. Messianic Judaism is the final form of Judaism that reflects the glory of Adonai. We carry this treasure in earthen vessels dedicated to His service.
Over the last few weeks we’ve been considering the encounter between Nicodemus and Yeshua. Yeshua’s gentle rebuke that, as a learned and pious man in Israel, he should have been aware of the deeper themes Yeshua was talking about, led us to conclude that there may well have been other areas clearly spoken to in the Torah, yet still under-developed or widely downplayed (if not ignored totally) in other forms of Judaism. Today I want to focus on one area that due to the destruction of the Temple in 70CE has been severely marginalised and ‘respun’: sacrifice.
There are two levels to this: the actual acts of sacrifice and the place where it happens. Firstly, you can’t fail to notice that sacrifice is central to Judaism. Once a few basic, ‘trend-setting’ commandments have been given on Sinai, we’re taken directly to the commandments to build the Mishkan, or Tabernacle. That construction has only one purpose, sacrifice, and it stood at the centre of the camp. Sadly, more modern non-Messianic Jewish forms of Judaism have belittled this fact theologically due to the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent impossibility of physically bringing sacrifices any more. But you can’t avoid the conclusion that Judaism functions on sacrifice. It does so precisely because Judaism is a restoration, deliverance and redemption faith. Judaism is G-d’s solution, His plan to reverse the sin problem created in the Garden and restore everything to the original default position. Atonement is the the moment when the sacrifice is accepted by G-d as a death equivalent to the death WE deserve due to our sins thus restoring the relationship between G-d and man. Interestingly, by commanding us to offer a sin sacrifice the Torah ASSUMES the sinfulness of all people (all humanity has fallen short of His glory and perfection) and our need for atonement.
But as we develop and track this idea of sacrifice through the Scriptures we see a potential problem: in the Garden the Lord said that if we ate of the tree (sinful rebellion), WE would die. Later again, the Torah is clear, the ‘soul that sins shall surely die’. WE should die for our sins, yet the Lord’s answer in the Mishkan was for animals to die. As glorious an idea as it is, substitution only works on equivalence, and the death of an animal will never be the equal to our sins. Fairness and equality is the basis of all justice and righteous judgement, and humans are not animals. Humans sin, animals do not. The writer to the Hebrews by the way recognises this dilemma in commenting that the cycle of animal sacrifices must continue forever because they are not adequate to deal with sins completely. They may provide a temporary ‘cover’ for our sins, but they can never completely remove them nor fully expiate them due to this fundamental issue of lack of equivalence. Only the death of a ‘human’ would remove the sting of the judgement of G-d (death) for our sins. But a sinful human could never do it as they too would need a sacrifice for their own sins, thus disqualifying themselves from paying the price for others’ sins. So what can be done? We need a human who has not sinned, one of us, yet perfect, by whose death we could truly be set free. We need G-d’s salvation and as He is perfect (the only One) in principle He must offer Himself to do this saving. In Judaism this logical step to the end conclusion is there, and if you have eyes to see it it is obvious, but sadly not for Nicodemus and not for so many of our people today.
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.