An Explanation to a Jewish Brother
In recent days my friend Pete Rambo and I have enjoyed a lively email exchange with a Jewish brother. By this time we have identified many of the key differences in our beliefs and the ways we perceive the world. I think it is safe to say we are confident enough in our relationship that we can ask some pointed questions without fear of alienating one another. The good thing is that we are all curious about what we believe, and we genuinely want to know how we each perceive the world. This has been eye-opening on all sides. I have learned that some of the things I thought I knew about Jews and Judaism were not quite right, just as our friend has learned that some of the things he thought he knew about Christians and Messianic believers were not quite right. This is the kind of dialogue that is essential if we are to come to an understanding of one another and begin to cooperate in bringing Messiah and building his kingdom.
What I share here is a response provided to our friend in answer to two questions. The first concerned our celebration of Passover (Pesach) – as in, why do non-Jews celebrate the Feast, and how do we do it? The second question involved our description of ourselves as something other than Christian. In other words, how is it that we believe in Yeshua, or Jesus, as Messiah, but do not consider ourselves Christians (or at least traditional Christians). In the interest of building mutual understanding, here are my answers to those questions.
This year we participated in a Passover seder with friends in Austin, TX, just as we have done for the last three years. All of our friends have come out of the traditional church, but all embrace Yeshua as Messiah and have a heart to learn and live the Torah as he taught it. This year we had ten people around the table, including our youngest daughter. Although she is 22 and about to graduate from the University of Texas, she was still the youngest person there, and it fell to her to ask the traditional questions.
We used a Messianic haggadah from Lion and Lamb Ministries. In years past we have produced a haggadah of our own, but it’s easier to take one from a source we appreciate and modify as we go along. That’s precisely what we did. Since none of us grew up Jewish, we do not know the traditional songs and sayings and prayers. However, we know enough to see where the traditions of Judaism mesh with what we have learned about Yeshua as our Messiah. That is why we are comfortable taking a traditional Jewish seder and inserting Messianic and Christian elements. For example, although we sang a chorus of “Dayeinu”, most of our songs were Christian hymns celebrating the death and resurrection of Yeshua as our Passover Lamb. We had the four cups of wine and we said the traditional prayers in Hebrew (since my wife and I have studied the most, we got to lead the prayers), but we did leave out a few things (such as horseradish – much to my chagrin since I like horseradish).
The key elements in the observance were remembering the national redemption of Israel in the Exodus from Egypt, linking that national redemption to Yeshua’s work of personal redemption (salvation), and looking forward to the restoration of both houses of Israel at the coming of Yeshua as Mashiach ben David (Messiah Son of David).
That last element is perhaps the distinguishing feature of a Hebrew Roots or “Two House” seder as observed by we who identify as B’ney Yosef (Children of Joseph). A Christian Passover seder would be more instructional to show how Yeshua’s ministry and the Last Supper he celebrated with his disciples have their roots in the Exodus story. A Messianic Jewish seder would have that same emphasis, but would also include a personal identification of the Jewish participants with the people who came out of Egypt.
We who understand our identity as Hebrews of the House of Yosef/Ephraim emphasize all of these elements. Whether we are physically descended from ancient Israel or not, it was our ancestors who came out of Egypt with Moses. We have a growing personal connection with the Exodus story, knowing in our hearts that it was our people who were redeemed from Egyptian slavery and taken into the covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at Sinai. We understand the sad testimony of our people in the following centuries: how both houses of Israel fell into idolatry and broke the covenant, but God had mercy on us all by keeping Yehudah (Judah) in covenant to preserve His Torah, while scattering Yosef (Joseph; the Lost Ten Tribes) into the nations both as punishment for our ancestors’ rebellion and as an act of His mercy to reach all the other nations. Thus we emphasize the work of Yeshua as Mashiach ben Yosef (Messiah Son of Joseph) in making a way for every human being to come into covenant relationship with God, and in particular his initiating the process of gathering the tribes of Yosef and their companions from the nations in anticipation of the kingdom’s restoration. The ultimate redemption happens when Mashiach ben David comes in power and great glory to complete this process. Although we disagree with our Jewish brethren on the identity of that Messiah to come, we can wholeheartedly join with them in praying, “May Elijah the Prophet come to us soon, bringing with him the Messiah, the Son of David.”
This year that prayer for Elijah’s coming is what meant the most for me. The arrival of Mashiach ben David will solve so many unsolvable problems regarding the divisions among God’s people. The question of Messiah’s identity is what separates us of B’ney Yosef from our Jewish brethren, and the question of what Messiah has done and will do is what separates us from our Christian brethren. When he comes, those questions will be answered and the kingdom of David will be restored. Then we can get around to the serious business of carrying out our king’s work of redeeming and restoring the earth. That, I suppose, is what “next year in Jerusalem” means to me. It’s not merely that I want to live in the Land, but that I want to live there under the restored covenantal order of the King, the Son of David (haMelech ben David).
Now let us see if I can answer question of why I do not consider myself a traditional Christian, yet I believe in Yeshua/Jesus. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church and was educated at a Presbyterian academy. That means my background is mainstream Evangelical Protestant Christianity. The scriptures I studied were the entire Old and New Testaments, with understandable emphasis on the New. What I learned about the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) was that it contained the foundations of our New Testament faith, and that Jesus Christ had completed the work promised by the Hebrew prophets to bring salvation and redemption to all of humanity. The Israel I learned about was entirely Jewish, meaning that none among my pastors and teachers made any distinction between the Jewish and non-Jewish parts of the nation. According to them, those tribes that followed Jeroboam into rebellion were just as much Jews as those who remained loyal to the House of David in the kingdom of Judah. Consequently, the understanding I had was that we Christians owed much to the Jewish people, if for no other reason than because their rebellion against God made it possible for all the rest of us to come into His kingdom. I had no need to learn anything about the “Jewish feasts” or any of those laws about the Levitical priesthood and the Temple service because Jesus had fulfilled all of it and instituted something new.
That understanding began to change around the year 1989, when my wife and I discovered the teaching of the late Zola Levitt. As a Messianic Jew with a gift for teaching, Zola built a ministry educating Christians about the Hebrew roots of their faith. Thanks to him I learned that the Passover, Jewish wedding customs, and many other elements of Jewish practice were reflected in the Gospels in the ministry of Jesus Christ. It was from Zola that I first learned the Messianic meanings of the various Passover traditions, seeing Yeshua’s work as Messiah as a consistent thread running throughout those traditions. This began the process of my questioning the things I had learned in my traditional Protestant upbringing.
About ten years later, the pastor of the Presbyterian church where we were members preached an Easter sermon that explained how Jesus could not have been crucified on Good Friday. If he had died on a Friday, he could not have fulfilled the prophecy of being dead three days and nights before his resurrection on Sunday. This pastor walked us through the timeline of Passover, Unleavened Bread, and First Fruits, explaining the difference between the weekly Shabbat and the High Sabbaths of the Feast. His conclusion was that Jesus was executed and hastily buried on the Day of Preparation, which was a Wednesday, and that the following day (Thursday) was the High Sabbath of Unleavened Bread. The day after that (Friday) was a normal work day, so the women who wanted to properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial could buy the spices and other items they needed, then rest on the weekly Shabbat, and on the first day of the week (Sunday) go to the grave, which they found empty thanks to the resurrection.
That sermon did much in opening my mind to the possibility that what I had learned in traditional Christianity was not necessary the whole story, and that there was more to be learned from delving into a Jewish, or Hebraic, perspective. I did not have opportunity to follow up on that until late in 2001, when a systematic study of the Scriptures brought on a profound crisis of faith. On a particular day in November I was reading from Daniel 7, the chapter in which the prophet receives the vision of the Four Beasts. When he wondered about the interpretation of this vision, and especially about the Fourth Beast, this is the answer one of the angels gave him:
Thus he said, “The fourth beast shall be a fourth kingdom on earth, which shall be different from all other kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, trample it and break it in pieces. The ten horns are ten kings who shall arise from this kingdom. And another shall rise after them; he shall be different from the first ones, and shall subdue three kings. He shall speak pompous words against the Most High, shall persecute the saints of the Most High, and shall intend to change times and law. Then the saints shall be given into his hand for a time and times and half a time.” (Daniel 7:23-25 NKJV)
I knew enough prophetic interpretation to understand that this “little horn” on the Fourth Beast was the same as the despicable person identified in the book of Revelation who will establish a world government at the end of days to oppose the Lord God. That person is commonly called “Antichrist” in Christian circles. According to the Apostle John, the “spirit of antichrist” is already operating in the world (I John 4:1-3). There was only one Law as far as I knew, and that was the Law which God gave to Moses. It seemed to me that I had read something in the Bible about what Jesus thought of that Law. After a brief search I found those words in the Sermon on the Mount, the seminal explanation Jesus gave about his mission on earth and how he expected his followers to live:
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20 NKJV)
According to these words, Jesus did not contradict the Law of Moses, nor supersede or “do away” with it as I had been taught. Somehow the Law of Moses and the work of Jesus Christ were compatible. If so, then what was it that this antichrist was seeking to change? With that in mind, I began to think this way:
- God instituted the Sabbath and the Feasts such as Passover and Tabernacles.
- Today we don’t celebrate those days, but we honor Sunday and Christmas and Easter, which do not appear in the Bible as days God has commanded to celebrate.
- Does this mean that the Christian church has sought to change times and laws?
- Is that is so, does that mean the Christian church is operating in the spirit of antichrist?
You can imagine the bone-chilling feeling that struck me as I pondered the implications of this line of thinking. If true, it meant that everything I had learned in my Christian upbringing was suspect. It did not mean that all my pastors and teachers were evil people with wicked intent, but rather that they and all of Christendom had operated under a massive deception for centuries. What I had been taught said that our inclusion in God’s kingdom was not by our own works of righteousness, but by the work of Christ alone. That is what I remembered from Paul’s writings:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands—that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:8-13 NKJV)
All of this occurred within the space of a couple of hours on that November day in 2001. At the end of that time, I began to pray for the Lord to explain to me how “Grace” and “Law” work together. Clearly they were not contradictory as I had been taught, but compatible in some way. The answer He gave over the next few months is what started me and my family on the path back to Torah. We realized that the Christian Jesus we had known all our lives was not exactly the Jewish Yeshua of historical reality. We learned that Yeshua never intended for his followers to depart from Torah, but rather wanted to teach all of them – both Jews and non-Jews – to follow Torah more exactly as God had intended all along. Before many years had passed, my family had begun to observe Shabbat and celebrate the Feasts as well as we could, adjusted our eating habits to remove those things which the Lord had declared were not food, had ceased observing Christmas and Easter, and had moved out of the Sunday church to join with a Messianic Jewish synagogue. During that whole process, we remained decisively attached to Yeshua of Nazareth as our Messiah, knowing that if it were not for him we would have no connection at all to Israel and no reason to follow Torah.
This is where we come to a further complication. What I have just explained is not exactly what our Messianic Jewish brethren believe. They see the world as divided into two categories: Jews and Gentiles. Israel consists entirely of Jews, whether Messianic or non-Messianic. Everyone else, even if they believe in Yeshua/Jesus, are still Gentiles and not exactly part of Israel. Thus the Torah is only for Jews, and the Noahide laws for are for everyone else. They believe the Ten Tribes of Yosef/Ephraim reintegrated into the Jewish nation in ancient days before the Babylonian Conquest, and that any teaching today which says the Ten Tribes are to return is either a heresy or a deception. Such an understanding is compatible with traditional Christian thought, which at best acknowledges that Jews have some role to play in God’s plan, but that unless they accept Jesus as Messiah they cannot be redeemed. At worst, Christian teaching says that the church has replaced the Jews and has become the new, spiritual Israel. If we carry this to the logical conclusion, it means that the true Israel is now Gentile.
That does not leave much room for someone like me, who understands that the real division of the world is not between Jews and Gentiles, but between Hebrews/Israelites and Gentiles. I do believe that salvation and redemption (which may or may not be different things) is through Messiah Yeshua, but I am coming to understand that it is more important to believe the promises of God and do as He said rather than to comply with a simple formula of “praying to accept Jesus into your heart”. If Yeshua taught us to follow Torah and believe in God’s promises of resurrection and restoration, and I am now doing that as best I can, then I am actually doing the same as my observant Jewish counterpart who does not necessarily share my belief in the identity of Messiah. This is not a “gospel of works”, but rather one of faith: we both believe the Lord will redeem and restore His people Israel and work through them to redeem the nations and the earth, and it is on the basis of that faith that He imparts His righteousness to us just as He did to our father Abraham. Because of that, we desire to please Him and do as He has commanded in Torah. I am persuaded that upon the coming of Mashiach ben David, everyone will know that he is Yeshua of Nazareth who came once as Mashiach ben Yosef. However, I also know that the Mashiach who is to come will have a name no one knows yet (Revelation 19:11-12). That means we will all be surprised, and we will all need to humble ourselves and throw out our misunderstandings so the Lord can correct us.
Do you see how this line of thinking is not exactly Christian and not exactly Jewish? It requires a much different understanding of “salvation” as something bigger than a simple formula of a sinner’s prayer, and it requires a much different understanding of Israel as something more than Jewish. As long as our Christian brethren worship a Jesus divorced from Torah and Israel, we have some profound differences which will interfere with our fellowship. As long as our Jewish brethren expect the Lost Tribes of Yosef/Ephraim to return as Jews, we have differences just as profound. I do not know if there is a human solution to this dilemma. All I can do is to rely on the Spirit of God to break down paradigms on both sides and open the way for true reconciliation among all His people.