Not Satisfied with Half the Picture: My Quest for Truth Beyond Tradition
A few weeks ago, Dr. Rivkah Lambert Adler sent out invitations to participate in a book project with the working title, Ten From The Nations: Exploring the Torah Awakening Among Non-Jews. Her motivation is to increase awareness of the fact that we are witnessing the gradual fulfillment of Zechariah 8:23. She is doing so by compiling testimonies from non-Jews who have experienced a Torah awakening of some sort, and from Jews who are actively building relationships with those who are stepping forward from the nations. The book will include the voices of Christian Zionists, Bnei Noach, Ephraimites, Gerim and more.
It is an honor to be one of those invited to submit a testimony. What follows is the story of my journey into an appreciation of Torah and the Hebraic roots of my Christian faith.
For more information on Ten From The Nations, including notice of when it will be available, send an email to email@example.com.
For the first few years of my life, people fell into one of two categories: white, or black. Then the rules changed and the world got complicated.
The world into which I was born was white, Southern, and Baptist. That was in 1961, when the requirements of my father’s career in insurance caused my parents to depart from their native Alabama and take up temporary residence in Pensacola, Florida. As we moved back to Alabama in 1963, the Civil Rights Movement entered its most active stage. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail, sit-ins and marches defied segregationist strongholds, and the Federal Government took steps to correct a longstanding injustice. Little of this turmoil impacted me until 1968, when a Federal judge ordered the desegregation of Birmingham’s public schools. One day I went to school with my all-white third grade class of about 20 students; the next day the class had swelled to over forty, half of whom were black.
I cannot say whether the addition of so many new playmates of color caused any trauma to myself, but I know that it shook my parents to their core. At the end of that academic year, they removed my brother and me from the public school, opting to make the financial sacrifice of placing us in the sanctuary of a Christian academy where we could receive a better education. It also had the advantage in their eyes of being an all-white school.
Well, almost. What may have escaped their notice was that Briarwood Christian School had a non-discrimination admissions policy. That explains the presence of one black child in the kindergarten – the only black child enrolled there during my years at Briarwood. My education was hardly interracial, and yet this turn of events triggered inexorable alterations to my worldview. By the age of 8, I learned that the antiseptic white society into which I had been born was less utopian than I had been taught. There was a world of color awaiting my exploration, and a host of questions that the scripted answers could not begin to satisfy.
What I had been taught was not all wrong. Much of it was right, but it was incomplete. So was the worldview of my black counterparts –much of it quite right, but incomplete. Our combined worldviews formed a far more complete picture, with the white perspective filling gaps in the black perspective, and vice versa. Thus my education proceeded along two parallel tracks: a formal track provided by the teachers and preachers at school and church; and an informal track hidden in the recesses of my heart and soul and mind. The hidden track evaluated everything presented to it, often reaching conclusions at odds with the accepted norms. Hence the reason it remained hidden.
The foundation of my worldview was far more spiritual than political, economic, or social. My family had been Southern Baptist from time immemorial. In my formative years at Dawson Memorial Baptist Church, I learned that God loves all people, but that there is this problem of sin: the human tendency to stray from God and go our own way. Therefore He had to come after us, just like a good shepherd seeks out his wayward sheep. The Good Shepherd, of course, is Jesus, the one I later learned to call by his Hebrew name, Yeshua. All I knew at the age of 9 was that something was wrong inside of me, and that only Jesus could fix it. He would not force his way on me, but would wait patiently for me to answer his invitation to come into fellowship with him and his Father. I answered that invitation one Sunday morning in 1970.
Not long after this salvation experience, my mother arranged to have me meet with our pastor, Dr. Edgar M. Arendall. He explained in his kind and thorough way the meaning of salvation and of my decision to follow Jesus. From that day to this, no one has provided a better explanation. At that early age I realized that Jesus – Yeshua – is God come in the flesh to redeem humanity. Only God could do such a thing, and I had experienced it personally. No pastor, teacher, rabbi, or anyone else has yet dissuaded me from this understanding for one simple reason: I have experienced it personally in my life, and by this experience I know in Whom I have believed. One may argue with logic, but argument with personal testimony is quite another thing.
But God requires the testimony of two or three witnesses to confirm a matter, which means experience requires the witness of knowledge with understanding. The teachers and pastors at Briarwood Christian School and Briarwood Presbyterian Church supplied that knowledge, and to them I owe an immense debt of gratitude.
The Presbyterian denominations are built on the foundation of Reformed Theology, the variety of biblical analysis that originated with John Calvin, progressed through the Scottish filter of John Knox, and received considerable refinement in the English Puritans – especially those who settled in Massachusetts. It is an intellectual faith quite different from my family’s ancestral Baptist faith. Whereas Baptists emphasize the free will of each person, urging them to choose to experience the salvation of a loving God, Presbyterians seek to figure out God and His ways. The byword of Presbyterianism that I learned was “predestination”: that God has already determined everything, and our lives are the walking out of the things He has declared from the beginning. There is much animosity between these two doctrinal positions, but as a teenager I concluded (thanks to wise counsel by a Baptist minister teaching Bible in my Presbyterian school) that free will and predestination are both correct since both appear unambiguously in scripture. It mattered little that I did not understand how they work together (to this day I do not fully understand), but both are required to gain a more complete understanding of our God and His ways, and of our responsibilities toward Him.
Thus I emerged into adulthood firmly grounded in my Christian faith, informed by two venerable Protestant traditions. For the next twenty years, those traditions guided me through a military career, marriage to a pastor’s daughter, parenting two beautiful daughters of our own, two and one-half graduate degrees, and finally employment by the United States Defense Department. My mind and spirit continued to churn with questions about the faith I had inherited. Even as a youth I had begun to ask such questions as:
- Why is Christmas not in the Bible? I see the stories of the birth of Jesus, but how do we know it was on December 25?
- Christian tradition says Jesus died on Good Friday, and rose from the grave on Sunday morning. That is only two days at the most, but Jesus said he would be in the grave three days and three nights, just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for that same time period. Why is our tradition different from what the Bible says?
- The Bible tells me about priests and apostles and bishops. All I see in the church today is pastors (well, ok, my Catholic and Episcopal friends have priests and bishops, but we Baptists only have pastors). Why are we organized differently than what is in the Bible?
- In the Bible I see twelve tribes of Israel. All I see of Israel today is the Jewish people. What happened to the other tribes?
My longsuffering father was at a loss to provide answers. Although he knew the scripture well enough to teach a Baptist Sunday School class for over 60 years, he did not know it deeply enough to help me process these questions. Consequently, I did my own processing, and in time learned the basic story of how this very Jewish expression of faith in Yeshua which I saw in the Bible had morphed into Christian traditions which worshipped the same Almighty God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but looked very, very different.
The answers began to come from an unusual source: our Presbyterian pastor in Tucson, Arizona. His sermon on Easter Sunday in 1999 explained how Jesus did not die on Good Friday, but earlier in the week. The sermon delved into what the pastor explained were the Jewish feasts of Passover, Unleavened Bread, and First Fruits. For the first time, I learned that the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples was a Passover meal, that his arrest, trial, and execution happened on the Day of Preparation before most of the Jewish community in Jerusalem ate the Passover, and how the following day was a High Sabbath (the first day of Unleavened Bread). Taking this into account, Jesus must have been executed by the Romans on a Wednesday, and placed in the grave by Wednesday night (the beginning of the High Sabbath), where he remained for the next three days. The women who bought spices to anoint his body did so on a Friday, the day between the High Sabbath of the feast and the weekly Sabbath (Saturday), and then on that weekly Sabbath they rested. When they were able to go to the tomb on the morning of the first day of the week (Sunday), Jesus had returned to life in fulfillment of the prophecy that he would be in the grave for three days and nights.
At last the pieces began to fit! This sermon opened my eyes to a new line of inquiry. Maybe the answers I sought were in the Jewish roots of our Christian faith. At the time I was not able to investigate this more completely, but a friend at that church provided even more food for thought. He gave me a book which traced the journeys of the Lost Tribes of Israel into Western Europe and the British Isles, and documented the advent of the Christian faith in Britain in the middle part of the First Century. All of these things demonstrated again that what I had learned was not all wrong, but it was not the full truth.
My quest continued as we moved to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, at the dawn of the new millennium. By this time it had become our quest; my wife also had questions she wanted to investigate. After nearly a year and a half in our new home, God opened a new and dramatic chapter. I had become a teacher of an adult Sunday School class and a deacon in our Baptist church when, in April 2001, I became acquainted with the Pentecostal and Charismatic wings of the church – those sects that emphasize the gifts and ministry of the Holy Spirit. A well-reasoned treatise on dreams and visions by Rick Joyner of MorningStar Ministries persuaded me of the scriptural foundation for such things. At that same time, I received a distinct challenge from God Himself: in prayer I discerned Him saying that He had a commission for me, and that I had the choice to accept it and see where it went, or to remain in my respectable mediocrity and never know what I had missed. Of course, I accepted the challenge. Soon thereafter, on the eve of my 40th birthday, I heard Him say, “You have had 40 years to learn the wisdom of the pharaohs; now it’s time to learn from Me.”
Thus began the most intense period of prayer and Bible study of my life. It lasted several years, and by the time I was done I had transcribed by hand the entire King James Version of the Bible. The King James, like all translations, contains errors, but the ten-year-long exercise of copying it word-for-word deepened my knowledge and understanding of the scripture in ways that no classroom instruction could have done.
About six months into the process, God opened the door to the revelation for which He had been preparing me for decades. It was just after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and I had been called back to active duty with the US Army. My duties in the Pentagon were structured in such a way that I found much time between shifts to delve deeply into the Bible. One day in November I read this passage:
And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time. (Daniel 7:25)
This verse refers to the despicable ruler of the last world empire (the “Fourth Beast”) at the end of days. Christians call this ruler the antichrist. I understood from I John 4:3 that the spirit of antichrist was already operating in the world, and from Daniel I learned that the one who operated in that spirit would seek to change the times and laws of God. Thus I reasoned this way: “If God established the Sabbath, but we worship on Sunday, and if God established Passover and Tabernacles, but we now observe Easter and Christmas, does that mean the church is operating . . . “
I could not finish the statement. An immense weight seemed to crash down upon my spirit as I realized the traditions I had inherited not only had departed from what was written in the Bible, but may even have been perpetrated by the deceiving antichrist spirit. Immediately I entered the greatest crisis of faith I had ever encountered, and immediately I sought answers.
Two came to me at that moment. I turned to the words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew and read this:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-19)
According to this, Jesus did not come to do away with the Law of Moses; somehow it remained in effect until the end of time. But the Law, as I had been taught, applied only to Israel. Which is why I turned to the words of Paul, the Jewish scholar who became the most vocal of the apostles:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus [Messiah Yeshua] unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; that at that time ye 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 ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:8-13)
Ah! So somehow the atoning work of Jesus and my faith in him as Messiah had granted me access to the nation of Israel. If that were so, I inherited not only the promises given to Abraham and his descendants, but also the obligations to keep the standards of righteousness God had expressed in His Law.
This line of reasoning informed my sincere request that God explain to me how Law and Grace fit together. Jews have the Law, or Torah as I understood it is called, and Christians have Grace, the merciful attribute of God that allows us all to come into His Presence. The two are not mutually exclusive as I had supposed, but intricately interwoven in a Divine plan to redeem all of humanity.
This revelation inspired my family to learn and live by the Torah. We realized in time that our Christian traditions are not entirely wrong; in fact, Christians already keep much of the Torah. However, what we learned in the church is not the full story. The deeper relationship with our God comes in obeying His commandments and keeping His instructions, just like our Messiah Yeshua teaches us by his example.
And what of our Israelite identity? That is an understanding still maturing in us. We know that there are twelve tribes of Israel, and that most of them remain scattered throughout the nations. The Jewish people are very much Israel, but they are not all of Israel. The nation remains incomplete without the Ten Tribes of the House of Joseph, also known as Ephraim, which were exiled over 2,700 years ago and have never returned.
Until now, that is. The worldwide Torah Awakening among Christians is the move of the Holy Spirit to bring the restoration of the House of Joseph at the fulness of time. We are learning that we are Hebrews, but we are not Jews. We are the missing part of God’s covenant nation, having not only the testimony of His redemption through the one we know as Messiah, but also the eternal truth of His Torah. Our desire is to walk out our part in this Divine plan, joining with our Jewish brethren in anticipation of Messiah’s coming to complete the restoration of his father David’s kingdom.
How exactly this will happen is still unclear. All I know is that we Hebrews from the Christian side and our fellow Hebrews from the Jewish side have two parts of an as-yet-incomplete picture. Much of what we have all learned is right, but there are gaps in our understanding which cannot be filled without mutual respect and a sincere desire to see the world through our brother’s eyes.