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.
There is much in the world right now that might lead one to conclude that it has collectively lost its senses. Be that as it may, this was only heightened by the recent decision by UNESCO to ratify a resolution generated by certain members of the UN that disavowed any historical Jewish connection with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. According to the authors of the resolution its stated aim of the text was “the safeguarding of the cultural heritage of Palestine and the distinctive character of East Jerusalem” (see link below). The absurdity of the description and the falsity of its basic premise was ably summarised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who said in a Facebook post that UNESCO had become a “theatre of the absurd” in taking “another delusional decision”. He continued “To say that Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China or that Egypt has no connection to the pyramids. By this absurd decision, UNESCO has lost what little legitimacy it had left.”
There are, thankfully, few within the Jewish world who would support such historical revisionism as is now accepted by the UN. The reasons for the outcry are, however, more nuanced. In a world where materialism and consumerism rule the conceptual roost it is fashionable, and has been for some considerable time, to see the world of faith a something purely ethereal and singularly spiritual by nature. This presentation of the Jewish faith merely sees faith wrapped up in joy, ecstasy or an emotional response to loving G-d. It is not even that unusual to hear the old ‘physical is bad, spirit is good’ dichotomy, taught by the ancient Greek philosophers. While it is true that the spiritual world underpins the physical, ignoring the physical is quite simply unjewish and unbiblical. In Judaism our faith is precisely rooted in the physical, the historical, the real world. G-d didn’t theoretically take us out of Egypt as a theological teaching tool, He actually DID take us out. Jewish faith is as much to do with dates and events as spirituality. We detect the Hand of G-d at work IN and THROUGH the physical real world around us. The reason why answered prayer is so powerful is because it shows that our G-d, while omnipotent, is not just so in theory: He can break through into this creational shell that is our temporary home. When He sent His salvation into human history He was born in a certain time in a certain place. Salvation has historicity.
To deny the physical reality of the spiritual is to follow through with the UNESCO resolution. Some may argue it makes no difference. It does. It is a crucial difference. Our G-d reigns not just on an ethereal plane but in reality in human lives, in time and place. Faith has a history, and it is important.
What the UN did with this resolution was not an action to side with an Islamist agenda regarding history. No, this was to take sides against the G-d of history who has left His fingerprints on the earth, in time. As such our response is not to become anti-Islamic but to recognise that we must work to become a stronger nation with all the historical ties to the Land legitimised in ways that only we can do as its inhabitants. A stronger national connection is the only answer to such historical revisionism. Ironically, by adopting this resolution, the UN has itself become an historic irrelevance, a footnote in man’s attempts to fight the G-d of Israel.