This post first appeared on Kineti and is authored by Judah Gabriel Himango, one of Tabernacle of David’s teachers.
“I am no longer Torah Observant. Here’s why…”
Friends, if you could peer into the mind of a believer who left the Hebrew Roots movement because of troubles within it, would you immediately dismiss his critique of the movement? Or would you introspect and humbly consider where we can improve?
A friend in the Lord and former Messianic congregational leader, Jonathan, announced this week he is no longer Torah observant and he and his family have begun attending a Baptist church.
Jonathan wrote a long post explaining his reasons for leaving, which includes critiques of the Messianic movement, especially the Hebrew Roots sub-movement. I’ll be analyzing his post here.
Before we begin, I must preempt any notion you might have about Jonathan being a flighty religious flake. Over my life, I have seen people join and leave the Messianic movement for the wrong reasons, jumping from one exciting new religious idea to the next at the slightest breeze.
Jonathan is not such a person.
I spent time with Jonathan and his family two years ago, and I attest he’s a sincere and devoted student of the Bible, serious about God, a godly family man. I have no doubt his leaving the movement is due to real problems that we must wrestle with and overcome if we are to see good fruit from Hebrew Roots.
Let’s analyze his post below, bit by bit. I hope it’s helpful to you, fine reader.
Be forewarned: this is a long post. I felt it necessary to properly deal with Jonathan’s observations within Hebrew Roots and his theological objections. To make it easier to read, I’ve broken it up post up into the following sections. Feel free to jump areas of interest:
Part 1: Problems in the Hebrew Roots Movement
Part 2: Theological Changes
I’ll end the post with a summary and challenge for Jonathan.
No longer Torah observant
“I am no longer a Messianic/Torah Observant Believer.
For some this statement will cause concern and shock, others will rejoice, and others will wonder what I am talking about! It is, however, a sad truth that there will be those who choose to no longer be friends with me for it. I pray that I am wrong in this for the friendships that I have formed over the last years are important to me.
A little over 16 years ago, I began down a path that I am grateful for, but was wrong. I joined a Messianic congregation at a time in my life when I was searching. I found a place that brought me joy and excitement, and I quickly began to study and learn everything I could.”
Jonathan is selling himself short here. Sincere, gospel-living Christians are Torah observant in that they observe the weightier matters of the Torah.
Yes, evangelical Christians disregard Torah commandments (and Gospel examples) of sabbath keeping, Passover celebrating, kosher eating, and so on.
But Christians who live according to the gospel are often doing the weightier matters of the Torah: good works like feeding the hungry and serving the poor. And those things are Torah commandments. These good works characterize Bible-practicing Christians, but are often neglected in the Hebrew Roots movement.
I must also commend Jonathan for viewing his time in the Hebrew Roots movement as a positive thing. Over the decades, I have witnessed people leave Messianic faith for secular lifestyles, for atheism, for Orthodox Judaism, for Christianity. Invariably, those people are bitter about their past experience. It speaks to Jonathan’s maturity that he remains grateful for his time in the Messianic movement, despite his theological shift.
Characterizing Hebrew Roots
“For those of you not familiar with the Messianic or Hebrew Roots movement the easiest way to summarize their beliefs is that the Torah of Moses is valid and binding on believers today. Some take this farther than others, but the group I found didn’t seem to. They taught that salvation was by grace through faith, but that once saved God expected us to eat Kosher, keep the 7th day Sabbath and the yearly festivals as outlined in Leviticus 23. The idea was to return Christianity to its roots.”
Jonathan accurately describes his corner of the Messianic world: Hebrew Roots Christianity. It’s important to note, however, that Hebrew Roots is not the entire Messianic movement.
|The broad Messianic movement: encompassing Hebrew Roots, Jewish Christianity, and Messianic Judaism. Organizations on the outer edge are illustrative and not exhaustive.
|Beyond Hebrew Roots, the Messianic movement also encompasses Messianic Judaism and Jewish Christianity. In fact, these Messianic groups often see Hebrew Roots as the red-headed stepchild of the Messianic movement due to sensationalism and wild conspiracy theories, some of which Jonathan touches on in his post.
In Jonathan’s letter, he’s departing from the blue section above: Hebrew Roots. He may not be aware of, or more likely has not deeply engaged with, the other parts of the Messianic movement. Likewise, some of his criticisms of Hebrew Roots, such as lack of evangelism, don’t apply to the other segments of the Messianic movement. (Jewish Christian organizations like Jews for Jesus are head-over-heels evangelistic
, for example.)
Unquestioning Torah exuberance
“Over the years, I began to encounter other groups that were more radical in their thinking and in some cases taught heresy. In my own congregation questionable teaching began to surface. A year and a half ago I painfully left that Messianic congregation, which started me on a journey to question what Scripture truly said. I realized that when I first started attending, that I soaked up everything I could, but I didn’t ask the tough questions that should come with any shift in theology. I was actually encouraged to not speak with my pastor about it because he wouldn’t understand and would dissuade me from keeping Torah. And so, I didn’t ask the questions. I repent now that I didn’t. I should have. But I am grateful for my time nonetheless, because the Father is using it and me.”
First, let me address the fine folks in the Hebrew Roots movement. Notice how Jonathan says, “I began to encounter groups that were more radical in their thinking…”? This is what I mean when I say that fringe ideas and theologies turn people off from God.
Reasonable people aren’t interested in your theories about why Bill Gates is actually the anti-Christ. Reasonable people aren’t interested in your conspiracy theories about portals, aliens, pseudo-medical woo, flat earth, serpent seed, and all the other hot garbage floating around Hebrew Roots.
That stuff turns people off from God.
Jonathan’s was not a unique experience. Like so many in Hebrew Roots, he “didn’t ask the tough questions” – there was a lack of critical thinking and analysis. This lack of rationality — using our God-given brains — is a deeply rooted problem in the Hebrew Roots movement and has resulted in all kinds of wild sensationalism, foolish wastes of time, and even heresy.
For Jonathan, these problems were a catalyst to make him stop and question everything. And while that questioning led him to throw out the junk, it also led him to reject the Messianic movement as a whole. We’ll discuss this deeper in the post.
Problems in Hebrew Roots and Theological Objections
“So, let me explain why I have left the Messianic/Hebrew Roots Movement and rejoined the Church.
I plan to split this into 2 sections. In the first part I want to review the problems that I see and experienced within the movement. Please keep in mind that these ARE NOT the reasons I left and changed my beliefs. These are the reasons that I began to question. There are some major issues within the movement, and as they grew, I wondered if God could really be ordaining this.
The second section is an overview of the Scriptural basis for my change in theology. This does not represent everything in my studies. There is more. But my intention is not to provide a theological thesis, but rather to explain my own journey, and the key Scriptures that helped me to understand. If you have questions after reading everything, please reach out to me privately…I will not respond on this thread. I will also include a list of resources that were beneficial to me in my study.”
Jonathan demonstrating some clear thinking here in that he can separate the problems of Hebrew Roots from his theological changes. I think most folks would conflate the two.
You’ll find in this response that I concur with him on the first point: problems in Hebrew Roots. It’s the second part where we’ll find nuance and disagreement. I think it will help illuminate readers as to where and why our pro-Torah theology differs from mainstream Evangelical belief.
No Gospel, No Outreach
“Part I – Problems with the Messianic/Hebrew Roots Movement
One of the first things that you need to understand is that there is no real leadership among the movement. Each community is largely on its own. Thus, from congregation to congregation the theology and its application vary widely. Some of the issues I list below represent the community that I was part of, some are those that I had contact with. All made me question and wonder if I was on the right track.
First and foremost is a lack of emphasis on the gospel. In my 16+ years never once did I witness a sinner saved. Never once did I hear an offer of salvation from anyone (myself included). I did not encounter nor know of any Messianic missionaries. Given that the last command of the Messiah was to preach the good news (Mk 16:15), this oversight is a big one. The entire New Testament is about the expansion of Christianity through the delivery of the Gospel…why would this not be foremost in the minds of those who believe that they understand what the New Covenant was all about? In fact, I was told at times that we shouldn’t be involved in missions at all. I was told that it was the world’s responsibility to come to us, not us to go to them. (A misunderstanding of Jeremiah 15:19.) Overall, it seems that the Messianic community is more interested in “evangelizing” those in the church with Torah Observance, than bringing the Gospel to the lost.”
On lacking the Gospel emphasis, Jonathan is right. Both the Gospels as a text for us to study and learn from, and the gospel message of Yeshua — repent from your sins, turn to God, and disciples of all nations — is lacking in Hebrew Roots.
I’ve been in this movement since I was a child; I am now nearly 40 years old. Where is our proclamation of Yeshua as Messiah to the Jew first and also the Gentile?
Hebrew Roots has found a good thing but neglected the best thing. It has almost replaced the gospel message with the Torah message. Often, I felt as Jonathan felt, like our evangelism was to Christians — to evangelize them to Torah — rather than bringing unbelievers into God’s kingdom.
Hebrew Roots and pro-Torah Messianic Judaism folks will object and say, “But Torah is the foundation of our faith.” First Fruits of Zion organization offers to Messianic students, for instance, HaYesod (The Foundation)
, which teaches Messianic believers to uphold the Torah as a foundational element of our faith.
But if that Torah foundation doesn’t lead us into Messiah’s Global Torah Export Business
— making disciples of the God of Israel in all nations — then we have misread and misapplied the Torah.
When Yeshua gave his final command to make disciples of all nations, did it include getting God’s people to live lives more in accordance with the Bible’s commandments and morality? Perhaps that is included. But almost certainly His final command was to bring in the lost sheep, the unbelievers, the people whom Isaiah calls “a people lost in darkness.” On that Hebrew Roots must reprioritize without losing our Torah salt.
Jonathan is not alone in recognizing this shortcoming of Hebrew Roots.
I was at a conference last year with the late Brad Scott
, and Brad said in his preaching, paraphrasing from memory, “We have raised a generation of Hebrew Roots youth to care more about kosher and tzitzit than about getting saved, being baptized, and making disciples. Isn’t that a problem?”
At my own congregation, too, I felt the Lord impressing outreach on my heart. I responded by organizing food shelf volunteer shifts and service to the poor. At these events, not only did we serve the poor, but we also told folks our reason for doing so was Jesus Christ.
A co-teacher at my congregation, Ryan White, also felt the shortcoming of Hebrew Roots with regards to the gospel. He changed his ministry from Rooted in Torah to Faith of Messiah
, and began teaching a weekly Gospel portion
in addition to our weekly Torah portion.
Bottom line: Jonathan is right, Hebrew Roots needs to prioritize the gospels and the gospel message to make disciples of all nations.
Degradading the New Testament
“The community I was part of taught that the New Testament was not Scripture. It was divinely inspired commentary, but not Scripture. I believed this for a time, and I was wrong. To remove the authority of the New Testament is to remove the authority of our Messiah and the apostles He commissioned. This teaching is dangerous and opens the door for more and worse heresies.”
Let’s be clear: any Messianic congregation teaching that the New Testament is not Scripture is heretical and outside of even mainstream Hebrew Roots. I’m sorry to hear that was the case for Jonathan’s congregation.
If the New Testament isn’t Scripture, we have no business calling ourselves Messianic — of Messiah — because everything we know about Messiah is from the New Testament. If it is not Scripture or not reliable about the identity of Yeshua, then we have no business calling ourselves followers of his. It’s a self-defeating faith.
In my experience, believers who reject the authority of the New Testament or the deity of Yeshua tend not remain believers for very long.
Slanderous Views of Paul
“A teaching gaining in popularity is that Paul is a false apostle because he teaching against Torah. (Just think about that contradiction for a moment.)”
I don’t use this term lightly, but this is heresy: it undermines Scripture and nullifies Messiah’s primary ambassador to the nations.
And it’s ironic because Paul himself, Scripture tells us, was a Torah observant Jew. Paul proves himself as such to the community of believers in Acts 26. The idea that Paul is anti-Torah is in faulty premise, both in my view and the views of Bible scholars like E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, N.T. Wright and from the New Perspective on Paul.
I dispute, however, Jonathan’s view that this anti-Paul message is gaining in popularity. If it were true, I would acknowledge it and call it out as I have done with other issues in this post. But, to my best knowledge, having been raised in this movement and having run a congregation and engaging with all variety of Hebrew Roots congregations and individuals, I have not seen this gaining in popularity.
“Worse still are others who that Jesus is not the messiah. One person actually teaches that Jesus (as understood by the church) is the anti-Christ, and Yeshua (Jesus’ Hebrew name) would come to overthrow him. This teaching led directly to Messianics saying that they weren’t part of the Church and weren’t Christians, but something different. It was the beginnings of an “us vs. them” mentality that is prevalent throughout the Messianic community. It is the same Jew vs. Gentile infighting that Paul wrote against in his letters.
Taking it a step further, others state the Jesus is the Messiah, but that he is not God. Others deny the personhood and deity of the Holy Spirit.”
This certainly does not describe mainstream Hebrew Roots. It exists in small pockets in the Hebrew Roots movement, however, and is a form of heresy.
When I say it doesn’t broadly describe Hebrew Roots, I don’t mean to invoke the “No True Scotsman” fallacy; to be sure some individuals in Hebrew Roots have a low Christology and view Messiah as something less than divine. Rather, there is no major Hebrew Roots group saying Jesus isn’t the Messiah.
Jonathan is right, however, that this “us against them”, faithful Messianics vs. lawless Christians thinking is prevalent in Hebrew Roots. In my decade helping run a Messianic Hebrew Roots congregation, I advocated for seeing Christianity as brothers and sisters in Messiah because of course we are.
If we view normative Christians as lawless heretics, well, as Messiah said, God will use that same standard of judgement against us. (Messiah said as much in the Gospels…if only we’d bother to read them.)
With regards to seeing Yeshua as Messiah-but-not-God, this also is a problem in the fringes of Hebrew Roots. As I’ve written on this blog for 15 years, Yeshua-as-Messiah-but-not-God would surely make us more palatable to mainstream Judaism, but would run completely counter to the New Testament
(Aside: If you’re unsure about this topic, or have objections to why Messiah is God, Messianic Apologist J.K. McKee has a recent series of videos addressing Messiah’s deity: 1
If Messiah were not God, then it would be idolatrous for us to pray to Messiah, as Stephen did during his stoning in the book of Acts. Moreover, we’d be found guilty of what Judaism regularly accuses us
: avodah zerah
idolatry for worshipping something other than God. Only if Messiah is God is our faith in alignment with the foundational Sh’ma statement: that God is one, and He alone is God.
Salvation by works
“I never heard anyone say explicitly that Salvation was through works, however this is what was in reality taught by many. I heard messages stating that because Christians don’t follow Torah, they aren’t saved. This effectively puts Torah as a requirement for salvation.”
Agreed that this is taught in mainstream Hebrew Roots: that Torah isn’t required for salvation. That’s a good thing. ☺
And, yes, some Hebrew Roots folks (In my experience, a small contingency) claim Christians are not saved because they are not following Torah, which goes against the mainstream teaching in Hebrew Roots.
As mentioned earlier, the whole premise is wrong.
Saying, “Christians don’t follow Torah” is a false statement. Sincere, Bible-practicing Christians follow a great deal of Torah.
Moreover, saying “Messianics keep Torah” is misleading: Hebrew Roots Messianics keep some (not all!) Torah commandments, meanwhile, other Messianic groups do not keep Torah.
Many Jewish Christian organizations, including many mainstream Messianic congregations in Israel, are actually against Torah observance for both Jews and Gentiles. (I blogged about how Howard Bass, leader of Congregation Nachalat Yeshua in Be’er Sheva, Israel, said it is heresy to teach that Jews or Gentiles should keep Torah. The only allowance for Torah they see is “cultural sensitivities to enable evangelism, i.e. pretend being Torah observant in order to evangelize. I find this deceptive.)
And, as Messianic Memes for Torah Observant Peeps calls out, we Torah observant Messianics don’t actually follow all the Torah, either:
In summary, this whole premise of “we’re Torah observant and you’re not” is wrong.
And yes, Hebrew Roots congregations and leaders need to deal with this issue and make clear that Christians are not lost for not eating kosher. While it’s a small group within Hebrew Roots who believes such things, it is nonetheless a divisive belief that rips our Messianic faith practice from our Christian heritage.
We must mature beyond “us vs. them.”
“The groups are overrun by conspiracy theorists and false prophets. There are mainstream Messianic teachers supporting flat earth, the fiction of gravity, the falsehood of the moon landing, as well as the electromagnetic healing properties of linen.
I will pause again to remind you that these false teachings I am bringing out were not taught by all groups, but they are all far to prevalent. I am aware that there are these teaching in other groups as well, but they have seem to found a home in the Messianic/Hebrew Roots/Torah Observant movement. I asked a messianic friend about the number of crazy things being taught and believed, his response was, “Yeah, swing a cat.” This is a sad commentary on the state of these groups.”
Yes, a hundred times this. I have been raising this alarm for at least the last 10 years.
I don’t know if people don’t believe me (or Jonathan) or just don’t care what we’re saying here. But this is an issue that if left unaddressed will mean the destruction of the Hebrew Roots movement from within.
I was disappointed last year when the late Brad Scott, previously a leading teacher in the Hebrew Roots movement, after giving a great exposition on the importance of the gospel for the next generation, ended his teaching by saying he doesn’t believe in gravity. I was confounded. I suspect the youth present were completely turned off.
He then went on to say that he doesn’t believe in flat earth, but he understands why people do. That wasn’t the bold stand against conspiracies and sensationalism our movement needs.
I don’t mean to pick on Brad Scott here. Other teachers in the Hebrew Roots movement have wild theories too. One person related to me that Monte Judah’s huge 2019 Sukkot gathering promoted the idea that a giant planet is headed on a collision course for earth. This same person told me that after the teaching, he had to reassure his crying kids that it’s not true and they’re not going to die from a planetary collision.
In my younger (and more foolish!) years, I attended a conference in which Michael Rood promoted all kinds of pseudo-scholarship nonsense, from lost books of the Bible, to end-times prophecies and date-setting, to conflating Christianity with paganism, “us vs them” thinking, and a hundred other falsehoods that I have thankfully put out of my mind.
And if conspiracy theories and false prophecies are common among teachers, it’s even more prevalent among laypeople in congregations.
In my own congregation just a few years ago, I had multiple people whispering about flat earth. Myself and my co-leader had to stand up in front of the congregation and tell the people to stop promoting flat earth and other sensationalistic nonsense that hurts our credibility as Yeshua’s disciples. As we did this, one man objected and began to quote Bible verses to support flat earth.
I wish I were kidding.
That man we pulled aside after service and spoke with him privately. We said, “This is not the place or platform for promoting your conspiracy theories. We ask you don’t preach your theories to other people while you are a guest here.”
The man refused and told us, “Fine, I’m going to start my own congregation.” We never saw him again.
The fallout from that saw at least one other person leave the congregation over flat earth. And another was disgruntled that we spoke against her conviction about the shape of the earth.
More evidence: in the last few years, I had to address people in my own congregation, helpers and teachers and people I otherwise respect, who were teaching their own conspiracy theories about nephilim, the book of Enoch, portals, and a variation on the serpent seed doctrine. We had to direct these people to keep their conspiracy theories to themselves. They ended up leaving the congregation and recently chewed me out on Facebook as a leader “who never supported them.” (Of course, that is not true, but I chose not to engage about that in a public forum.)
Even more evidence: Virtually all my Hebrew Roots friends on Facebook post nonsense theories about Bill Gates, medicine, vaccines, and COVID. This too is the rotten infection that continues to grow in Hebrew Roots. Just now — literally, just as I am typing this sentence — I got a notification from a Facebook reply, “proving” that Bill Gates is Satan. The contents?
|As I was typing this very sentence, a Hebrew Roots person used the above source as a means to suggest that Bill Gates is evil and vaccines are bad. Watch out for “snakemaker coding”! I would laugh if it weren’t so terribly sad.
I work for Bill Gates’ company. I can assure you, there is no plan for microchipping people with vaccines, controlling population growth through injections, controlling people’s minds through 5G, or any of the other conspiratorial nonsense out there.
And yet, in a recent thread on my Facebook page, 200+ comments primarily from Hebrew Roots folks claimed that Bill Gates is a pedophile, a Satan worshipper, wants to sterilize the human population, force us to take the mark of the beast, etc. One man even pleaded with me, “If you hear that Gates is planning to force us to receive a vaccine, tell me so that I can get defenses setup and defend my family even if I have to give up my life.”
When I told this man that, as Yeshua’s disciples, we are called to die on a greater hill — one of self-sacrifice and humble service to God and people — he got angry and called me names.
This is a do-or-die moment for Hebrew Roots. If conspiracy theories and sensationalism are not curtailed, it will kill the movement from within. Until then, Hebrew Roots continues to be a source of embarrassment for the rest of the Messianic world, and indeed, the broader Christian world. It will continue to shed reasonable people, youth, and intellectual thinkers — ending in its demise — if we do not repent.
End-times sensationalism and false prophecies
“Key leaders have continually set dates for Messiah’s return. I’ve never known one of them to repent. Rather they continue to teach and publish the next book.”
Jonathan’s right. I’ve never seen any of the Hebrew Roots teachers repent for predicting the end that never came. As Messianic Jewish pioneer Rabbi Stuart Dauermann recently wrote
, “Some of my best friends are false prophets.”
Shouldn’t it concern us that young people are leaving our movement over our conspiracy theories and end-times sensationalism?
When I linked to that post on Facebook, hundreds of comments came…not in support of Lucas, nor humbling acknowledging a problem in our movement. Instead, these were comments coming against Lucas, blaming him for not coming to leadership, or blaming him for having fear, and other haughty garbage.
Where is the humility to acknowledge we have made mistakes?
I saddened to see that of the few comments supporting Lucas and acknowledging Hebrew Roots’ failure in this regard, almost all were from young people who felt the same way: they felt turned off by the false prophecies and sensationalism all too prevalent in the Hebrew Roots movement.
I am not alone here: I’ve witnessed dozens of Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish teachers predict the end, or predict some great event (remember the blood moons of 2018?), or predict the return of Messiah at Sukkot…and it never came to pass.
And while this problem isn’t exclusive to Hebrew Roots — Evangelical Christianity has no shortage of end-times predictions! — it is too often front-and-center in our movement.
I have a special word for people reading this who have prophesied: if your prophecy didn’t come about, show humility, acknowledge you were wrong, and publicly repent for falsely prophesying. Also, know that the Torah commands that we not listen to you in the future. That is your burden to bear for falsely prophesying.
Scholarship is derided
“There is very little scholarship. In my congregation education was downplayed. People who had earned Ph.D.s were referred to as post-hole diggers. Seminary was called cemetery. It is no wonder that the previous points are issues. The number of Messianic scholars that I trust to accurately handle the Word of Truth I can count on 1 hand. 4 is the exact number. While I now disagree with their conclusions, I respect their work and the wrestling that they have had with Scripture. The majority of teachers that I encountered were self-taught or YouTube taught. The number of messages I heard promoting false history, bad Hebrew, worse Greek, or wrong Scriptural conclusions is staggering.“
I am sad to report this also is true, from my first-hand experience. Bible scholarship — deep dives into Scripture and theology from the brightest minds of those who have devoted their lives to learning the Bible — is mocked and derided. Education is considered indoctrination.
I have heard similar things at my congregation, and in years past, I confess I took part in this mocking. I now see the error in that way of thinking.
Here’s why Hebrew Roots folks think this way: Modern scholarship has resulted in the Church and modern Christianity. Modern Christianity is terribly deluded about the Torah (and possibly unsaved). Scholarship has led to all kinds of foolishness and immorality, with liberal scholars finding loopholes in Scripture for virtually any sin. Besides, my pastor went to seminary and he lied to me. Therefore, modern scholarship is to be mocked and derided as worse than useless.
The problem with this kind of thinking is the premise is again faulty, the arguments are not nuanced, and the conclusion is dangerous.
Faulty premise: that the Church is evil, “us vs. them”, not saved, lawless. As discussed earlier, this isn’t true.
Blunt arguments: yes, scholarship has sometimes failed and sometimes produced a bad kind of faith practice. But that ignores the vast, rich history of scholarship, philosophy, and engaged thinking that we in the Messianic movement inherit through our Christian and Jewish heritage. We are a poorer movement for having derided or ignored the works of great Christian and Jewish scholars from ancient times to today. They have laid out sophisticated arguments for God’s existence, dug deeply into the words and meaning and context of the Bible, wrestled with how to apply the Bible to their generation, illuminated difficult passages, helped people of faith navigate life.
It doesn’t mean scholars are perfect, but it does mean they’ve already dove a thousand feet into the murky depths of issues into which laypeople have only toe-dipped the surfaced.
Just as a untrained man cannot come to the operating table and perform surgery without first learning what his predecessors have passed on, so also our teachers and leaders ought to engage with Christian and Jewish scholarship handed down to us through thousands of years.
Yes, there is a place for laypreachers who speak from the heart at the Lord’s calling — not every teacher will be a scholar — but we must stop the mocking and deriding of men who devote their lives to study of the Scriptures in Hebrew Roots.
It doesn’t mean Bible scholarship will always be right. Every generation has its blind spots. But we ignore and refuse to engage to our destruction.
Dangerous conclusions: with this mocking of scholarship, titles become meaningless and authority becomes void.
One example of this is, a friend once encouraged me to call myself the rabbi of my congregation. He was well-intentioned, but I told him I am not a rabbi. I am not an expert in Jewish texts, I have not devoted my life to full-time study of the Scriptures and rabbinic texts. I can’t event speak Hebrew! (I am learning!) And yet this man said I should be a rabbi.
When scholarship is derided, titles become meaningless; anyone is a rabbi! Might as well call me a brain surgeon because I watched a YouTube video. Call me a philosopher because I read a book about it. It’s foolish and it makes outsiders not take us seriously, for good reason.
When we mock scholarship, expertise dies.
Another example of a dangerous conclusion of anti-scholarship thinking is the dissolution of authority.
If scholarship and training and study are worthy of derision, authority holds no teeth.
People often came to my congregation not seeking to be taught, but seeking to teach me! After all, does a congregational leader have anything more valuable to say than a layperson? Not in Hebrew Roots! Everyone’s opinion is equal, whether you spent a lifetime of study or just came into the movement last Monday. Everyone’s an expert. Everyone’s a teacher. There is no authority.
The outcome is the wild west setting we now are experiencing.in which all kinds of wild ideas pass because some teacher said them. There is no checking these ideas against the measure of our rich Christian and Jewish Biblical scholarship.
Many have turned to Jewish scholarship. There is value here (personally I love reading Abraham Heschel and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), however, these men deny the Messiah. They should not be our sole access to good Biblical scholarship. As a result, so many within the movement have ended up in the Synagogue and converted to Judaism, denying Jesus completely.
Jonathan is correct again, this is a problem in the movement. I would broaden this critique a bit: some Hebrew Roots laypeople and teachers idealize Judaism to an unhealthy and unrealistic extent. Because we’ve demonized Christianity and Christian scholarship, they’ve turned to Judaism. In their view, if it comes from Christianity, it’s evil and pagan. But if it comes from Judaism, it’s divine heavenly truth.
As Jonathan mentions, it’s not to say we shouldn’t engage with Jewish scholarship. Much value can be derived from this rich heritage of our faith.
Rather, the problem is prioritizing Judaism and yiddishkeit over everything else regardless of merit. The people doing this often feel being a gentile is a second-class status, so many of them try to find Jewish heritage in their ancestry. They quote almost exclusively Jewish texts like the Mishna and the Gemara, and possibly more fringe works like the Zohar. They spend more time in extra-Biblical Jewish texts than in the New Testament. Sometimes, even more than the Torah. Many of these people end up denying Yeshua so as to finally fit in and be accepted by the Jewish world.
A Kingdom of Eating and Drinking
“These are not the only issues, nor are the issues presented fully explained and fleshed out. But I hope that they have shown why I began to question if this was of God. In short, Paul said to the Church in Rome, “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14:17) Yet this is exactly what the Kingdom has been made in many Messianic congregations. They teach in word or practice that important things of the Kingdom are what you eat and what holidays you celebrate. They forgot the warning of Jesus, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these things you should have done without neglecting the others.””
Jonathan is right again. In Hebrew Roots, we have amplified shabbat and kosher and Biblical feasts. But we have neglected the weightier matters of the Torah. We now have on our hands a movement filled with religious nitpickers who major on the minors, do no critical thinking, are quick to teach and slow to learn, ridicule scholarship, and promote conspiracy theories and wild sensationalism.
Jonathan is right to question if such a movement is from God. (Indeed, if the whole Messianic movement was as he describes, I too would be looking for a new faith community.)
With this, Jonathan wraps-up part one: problems he’s observed in the Hebrew Roots movement that made him question his theology.
And so far, I must concur, his observations ring true for my decades in this movement. My only disagreements with him are on the prevalence, rather than the existence, of these problems.
We now move on to Jonathan’s theological objections. Here you’ll find bit more disagreement in this section. We’ll keep it respectful and consider it a difference between brothers.
Preface to theological objections: work in progress
“I will be the first to tell you that I am still studying this out. Not to determine if what I believe is true, but in order to accurately handle the Word of Truth and to give a defense for the hope that I have. “
What more can we ask that people continue studying? I’m glad Jonathan has the humility to recognize that he hasn’t arrived at a pinnacle of understanding.
“God doesn’t change” and “Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law”
“There are 2 major themes that were often used to teach that Torah Observance was still to be followed today. First, that God doesn’t change (Heb. 3:8) and that Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law (Torah of Moses – Matt. 5:17). I will explain how I now look at these issues mainly using the book of Romans.”
Jonathan describes the major themes where his thinking has changed:
- God doesn’t change [unstated: the Law doesn’t change]
- Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law
These two major themes are often used to explain why we see the Torah as relevant instruction for our lives.
I was giddy to see Jonathan using the book of Romans to explain his thinking. I have spent the last several years preaching from the book of Romans at my home congregation. I consider Romans to be the most influential letter written in Western civilization, powerful instruction to God’s people and especially relevant to Messianics as it deals with Jew/Gentile issues. Glad to not be flying blind here. 😊
(Aside: I recommend every Messianic believer read Romans for the Practical Messianic. This fantastic book by Messianic scholar and apologist J.K. McKee analyzes the historical and Scriptural context of the letter, engages with a great deal of Biblical scholarship on Romans, including the New Perspective on Paul, and ultimately uncovers a Torah-positive message from the Messianic Jewish apostle Paul.)
On the first theme, God doesn’t change, I also have had
evolving maturing views on this. But my conclusion differs from Jonathan’s.
On the second theme, Jesus didn’t abolish the Law, my view has remained largely unchanged. Matthew 5, Yeshua’s fundamentals-of-the-faith sermon, is a problem for mainstream Christianity because it contains statements about the Torah’s immutability as well as a praise of good works. And the Christian response to these problems remains unsatisfactory. Jonathan doesn
I’ll cover these more in detail below.
I’ll end my response with some challenges for Jonathan coming from the gospels and Acts.
Let’s dig into Jonathan’s theological objections to Torah observance.
Romans answers whether Gentiles should keep Torah
“During the reign of Claudius, the Jews were expelled from Rome for about 5 years. Once they began to return tensions arose between the Gentile and Jewish Christians, thus prompting Paul’s letter. The arguments in the community centered around the Mosaic Law and if Gentiles were expected to obey the more cultural aspects of it (circumcision, Kosher, feasts etc.). Having a unified community would make it easier for Paul to use Rome as a base for his planned missionary journey to Spain.”
It’s worth noting, too, that one historian explains the reasoning for Claudius’ decree: “Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, Claudius expelled them from the city.”
This Chrestus is widely believed to be a corruption of Christos, or Christ, signalling that there were violent debates in the Jewish community at Rome about Jesus’ claims to be the Messiah.
Jonathan says the arguments in the community centered around the Torah and whether non-Jews should be circumcised, eat kosher, celebrate the Biblical feasts. I think this is a mischaracterization. Jonathan is reading into the book his exact dilemma.
Romans, to my best understanding, is addressing issues that arise when a significant portion of a believing community is ousted based on race — only to return a decade later. Here you had the Jewish leadership of Acquilla and Priscilla, Messianic Jewish believers leading the Roman community, but after being ousted from Rome, they and some of the other Jewish believers return to find that non-Jews have taken their place. There is resentment, suspicion, even hatred between the Jews and Gentiles in the Roman community. Paul’s letter in the opening chapters addresses these problems that had arisen.
To be sure, that problem includes Torah practice, but it’s much greater than that. We’ll discuss more in detail below.
Paul doesn’t correct Gentiles for breaking the Torah
“It is worth observing that in his letter he doesn’t ever correct the gentiles for not following the Mosaic Law. Instead, he urges unity. If the aspects of the Mosaic law were a sin issue for the church, why would Paul not call it out? He certainly had no compunction about calling people out when it was necessary.”
I dispute Jonathan’s claim here that Paul doesn’t correct the gentiles for not following the Torah.
Here is my reasoning: In Romans 2, Paul blasts both Jews and non-Jews for sinning, and in Romans 7 he defines sin as breaking the Torah. He says,
For all who have sinned outside of Torah will also perish outside of Torah, and all who have sinned according to Torah will be judged by Torah. For it is not the hearers of Torah who are righteous before God; rather, it is the doers of Torah who will be justified.
Here, Paul is saying that people who do what the Law says are justified before God. (Whether the law he is speaking of is a subset of the Mosaic law or not doesn’t matter, because that theoretical moral subset of the law would not contradict the full law.)
More evidence that Paul rebukes Gentiles for not keeping the Torah: In the opening chapter of Romans, Paul blasts the wicked generation — most likely speaking to Rome and Roman practices — of homosexuality. He says,
“God gave them up to shameful passions. Even their women exchanged natural relations for what is against nature. Likewise the men abandoned natural relations with women and were burning with passion toward one another—men committing shameful acts with other men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
Some Christians will claim this prohibition is part of an moral law that has always existed, not the whole Torah given to Israel. But the problem is that law is ill-defined. Neither Paul, the prophets, nor the Torah itself categorizes laws into civil, moral, or ceremonial. It’s an extra-biblical categorization
And because this moral law is undefined, there is no stopping recategorization of commandments that run contrary to modern cultural mores. Certainly you’ll find liberal Jewish and Christian scholarship that argues the Torah’s laws about homosexuality was ritual or cultic law, and thus, not applicable to modern monogamous same-sex relationships. (And thus, Paul’s own words against homosexuality can thus be discarded as irrelevant for today.)
The ill-defined moral law gets blurrier the deeper you dig. Are the 10 commandments moral law? Yes? But they also deal with Shabbat. If Shabbat is moral law, then why aren’t the Biblical feasts, of which Shabbat is the first?
Paul rebukes both Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome for their sin in the opening chapters of his letter. In Romans 2, he opens by saying, paraphrasing, “You’re sinning and haven’t been judged; does this mean God accepts your sin? No. God’s long patience with you is so that you will repent.”
This raises the question, “What is sin, exactly?”
Paul answers this question in Romans 7:
“I would not have known sin except through the Torah. For I would not have known about coveting if the Torah had not said, “You shall not covet.”
If Torah makes known what sin is, and Paul rebukes both Gentile and Jewish believers for their sin, then Jonathan’s statement that “Paul doesn’t rebuke Gentile Romans for breaking the Torah” does not follow.
Maybe Jonathan is looking for something like, “Hey you non-Jewish Romans, why aren’t you keeping Passover?!”
And I think Jonathan answers that question himself: the Kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking. It doesn’t mean the Biblical feasts are unimportant or discarded. But it means there were bigger issues at hand, especially for the Roman believers who were surrounded with sexual immorality, idolatry, and persecution: the issues Paul harps on on Romans.
More about sin and Torah relevance later in the post.
God doesn’t change…but we do
“God doesn’t change. This is absolutely true. However, humanity does. Our culture, values, society, language all change. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic should prove that. Thus, while God does not change, the way He works with us does. I was taught that because God doesn’t change, what was sin for David must be sin for us. On the surface this sounds good, but there are a few issues.”
Jonathan is correct. God doesn’t change, but humanity does.
This is a difficult matter for every believer, Christian or Messianic. It is more difficult than many of us would like to admit. The difficulty, in a nutshell, is this: “How can I apply the ancient commandments in the Bible to my modern life?”
The Torah is filled with things directed to ancient people. Commandments on blood sacrifices. War brides. Caring for women because they didn’t couldn’t provide for themselves. Dowries because parents of girls couldn’t take care of themselves in old age. Polygamy because so many women and infants died during childbirth. Slavery because that’s the way the culture worked 3500 years ago. Lighting fires on Shabbat because electricity was not yet harnessed. Fences on our roofs to prevent people from falling off. Leaving corners of our fields for the poor because everyone was a farmer.
The list goes on and on of commandments that made perfect sense 3500 years ago, but are unclear how (or even if) we should apply them today.
Because the Bible was revealed to an ancient people, we must use our God-given logic and reasoning to determine how to apply those ancient rules today. God has entrusted us, his people, to use our minds to apply the eternal principles of the Bible to new circumstances and new evidence over time. (Indeed, Jonathan and I are doing exactly that in this post.)
Our conclusions on how to do this differ.
Jonathan’s approach follows the Evangelical model of saying, “Categorize commandments into Buckets A, B, and C. Only the commandments in Bucket C are to be obeyed.”
My approach follows more the Jewish model: “Keep the ones we can, apply the principle where we can’t.”
Consider the commandment regarding fences on our roofs. The Torah says that if a person falls off your roof because you failed to build a guardrail on the roof, you are liable for damages.
Jonathan’s approach to this commandment would, I assume, group it into one of the ignore buckets. I don’t think Christians give any deep thought to fences on their roofs.
My approach would be, “OK, I can’t keep this commandment since I didn’t build my own house. I’m not a carpenter. Additionally, virtually no one walks on roofs in modern times! Is there a principle I can apply?”
And yes, there likely is a principle we can apply. I am responsible for the safety of things I own. It might inform me to choose a car with better safety ratings. (I probably haven’t kept this commandment well!) It might instruct me to buy a safety net for the trampoline in my back yard because neighbor kids jump on it. And so on.
It’s good for Christians and Messianics to wrestle with these questions. We must figure out — wrestle with, pray, study, ask our community and leaders — how God wants us to apply the Bible to our lives today. If we do that consistently and earnestly, I’m certain our walk with the Lord will grow.
Contextual application of commandments
“First, If I tell my son to not turn on the TV because it’s bedtime, that does not mean he isn’t able to do it the next day. Am I “changing”, or am I dealing with him differently because of a difference in the time of day?”
Jonathan uses an analogy here to show that a commandment applies at one time and not at another.
I think that analogy doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, however.
Many of the Torah commandments, including Shabbat, have eternal status attached to them. “This is to be a sign between you and me forever”, says God in the Torah.
In Jonathan’s analogy, it would be as though he said, “My agreement with you, son, is that the TV is off every Sunday.”
Imagine Jonathan’s surprise when his son tells him that the TV commandment has been relegated to Bucket B, and thus can be safely ignored.
That said, Jonathan has a valid point here. Biblical commandments are contextual: some bound by time, some by profession, some by locale (must be in Israel), still others by externalities like the existence of a Temple in Jerusalem. Nuance is our friend here.
The Torah of Moses hasn’t always been here
“Some Messianics teach that because God doesn’t change, the Torah, as given at Sinai, has always been around. They teach that Adam, Noah and Abraham all ate Kosher, celebrated Passover and Tabernacles, and rested on the 7th day Sabbath. The problem here is that this isn’t what Scripture says.
Romans 5:12-14 “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned —for until the [Mosaic] Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.”
The idea of this passage is that the penalty for sin can’t be imputed where there is no knowledge of the law. Yet, death (sin’s penalty) existed from the time of Adam until Moses, when the Torah was given. Thus, there was a law in place from the time of Adam to Moses, however it is distinct from the Mosaic Law. ”
Jonathan’s right that many Messianics teach the Torah has always been around. Jonathan argues that Romans shows that the Torah wasn’t always around. Thus, the implication is that because the Torah isn’t eternal past, it need not be eternal future.
Of course, even Evangelicals believe part of the Torah is eternal past and eternal future: the ill-defined moral law.
Stepping back a moment, Paul’s main point is that both sin and death existed prior to Sinai. This is not under dispute.
Jonathan theorizes that the existence of sin and death prior to Sinai means there was a law predating, and distinct from, Moses.
My response is two-fold: it doesn’t follow, and it doesn’t matter.
It does not follow: that divine law existed before Moses does not mean it was deviating from the divine law given to Moses. One may argue it was a subset of Mosaic Law — again, the ill-defined moral law — but we cannot infer from the premise that these laws were different. We can only infer that the punishment was the same: sin producing death. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood Jonathan’s premise, but I don’t see how his conclusion can be reduced from the premise.
If one argues, “the law before Sinai was the moral law, and only at Sinai did we get a full revelation of the Law”, well, this argument works against the Evangelical position. Why settle for partial revelation when we have available to us the full revelation?
Suppose we push back and say, “There was an eternal law before Sinai. Mosaic Law includes that eternal law, and merely adds time-bound cultural commandments.”
Then the question becomes, “Which are must-obey the eternal laws, and which are the can-ignore time-bound commandments?”
This leads me to my second objection: it doesn’t matter.
Suppose the Mosaic law didn’t exist prior to Sinai. (Aside: This may be true, although there are confounders like Noah and his clean and unclean animals.) What now – should we say, “Now we can just go back to that eternal law?”
We can’t, because God never elucidates for us what that law was.
Or suppose it’s true, and our next thought is, “Since new law codes come and go, this means there’s a new law, the law of Christ.”
This also doesn’t matter for our purposes, because the law of Christ cannot contradict the law of God given to Moses.
Following the law of Christ would be following the law of God, and vice-versa. There indeed exists the Torah of King Messiah, the law of Christ, and it gives us a new emphasis and priority on the weightier matters of the Torah — mercy, justice, faithfulness — but it does not contradict the law of God.
And that we cannot find any approval of breaking the Law of Moses in the gospels or epistles should clue us into this harmony.
Surely Roman Gentiles weren’t keeping Passover
“Were kosher, feasts and sabbath part of this law? Romans 2:14-15 “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them,” I doubt that a Gentile would accidently keep Passover or kosher. The law that existed from Adam to Moses is the moral law found within the Mosaic Law. Do not murder (Genesis 9:6) is a prime example, but there are others.”
Jonathan quotes Romans 2 to argue that surely the “law being written on the heart” is not the full Law of Moses. It must be the moral subset. The conclusion he reaches is that surely the Roman Gentile believers were not e.g. celebrating Passover, since Passover is categorized as outside moral law.
I’ll address some nuance in the premise, then respond to his conclusion.
While it’s certainly true that the “law written on the heart” likely doesn’t include commandments about fences on your roof 😊, it most certainly can include things like resting on the 7th day. (After all, Jonathan appeals to Genesis 9 for “do not murder”, why not Genesis 2 for resting on the sabbath?) Paul doesn’t spell out which commandments are being written on the heart. Jonathan fills in the blanks with the ever-nebulous moral law.
In doing so, I suspect Jonathan is conflating two distinct concepts: what is being written on the hearts of Gentile believers, and what God ultimately requires from his people. The latter subsumes the former. But conflating these two results in a faulty conclusion in which all that God requires of us is whatever he wrote on our hearts when we came to faith. I do not think Paul is arguing for that in Romans 2.
Paul argues in Romans 2:13 that Gentiles who do the works of the Torah are righteous, more so than even “Torah observant” Jews who aren’t actually keeping the Torah. The same may be true today of Christians who are doing the works of the Torah (mercy, justice, charity, righteousness, good works, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick), more so than “Torah observant” Messianics who aren’t doing those things. There’s a lesson for us in that.
But! This doesn’t mean Sabbath, or feasts, or kosher are unimportant. It just means they are not the weightier matters of Torah written on the heart.
Circling back to Jonathan’s conclusion: did the Gentile Romans keep Passover? Surely that wasn’t one of the things written on their hearts, after all.
This raises a new question, how does God reveal his laws to us? Clearly divine revelation (e.g. Sinai) is one such way. But Paul also argues in Romans that God reveals himself to us through nature and through his people.
Nature: In Romans 1, Paul says even wicked people know God exists. How? “Because what can be known about God is plain to them—for God has shown it to them. His invisible attributes—His eternal power and His divine nature—have been clearly seen ever since the creation of the world, being understood through the things that have been made.” (Romans 1:19-20) God has made himself known through nature to all humanity.
God reveals more of himself through his people. Paul appeals to the Romans to submit to authority for the sake of your conscience (Rom 13). This applies to governmental authorities, but also spiritual authorities. God uses people — our faith community, our spiritual leaders — to build us up, mature us, grow us in the Lord, show us how to walk.
And who were those spiritual leaders in the Roman community? We know from Romans and Acts their names: Acquila and Priscilla, both Messianic Jews. Did these Jewish believers stop practicing Passover because Messiah had arrived? We know the disciples did not stop visiting the Temple or celebrating the feasts. We know Paul also tells non-Jewish Corinthian believers, “Let us keep the Feast [of Passover], for Messiah our Passover lamb has been slain.”
It is likely, then, Acquila and Priscilla also continued celebrating Passover. Indeed, given we know they were identifiably Jewish, having been ousted in Claudius’ purge, it is almost certain they were still practicing Shabbat, kosher, feasts, circumcision, and other Jewish practices.
And if the leaders of the Roman believers were keeping Passover, isn’t it also plausible the laypeople were following their example?
Yes, the Roman Gentile believers likely celebrated Passover.
Different laws for different people
“The point is this. It is clear from Romans and throughout Scripture that those prior to Moses did not follow the Torah as it was outlined at Sinai. Parts of it existed, but not most of the commands that the Messianic community highlight. If the expectations of God were different for Noah than for David, it isn’t a stretch to say that it might be different for myself who lives after the Messiah.”
It’s not clear. I wish it were!
Jonathan argues that the law for Noah differed from the law for David, because clearly kosher didn’t exist in Noah’s day.
But did it?
Jonathan previously quoted from Genesis 9 as an example of the law that existed before Sinai. Consider Genesis 7, where God tells Noah to take seven of every clean animal, but two of every unclean animal. If kosher laws didn’t exist for Noah, how does he know what is clean and unclean?
Even if we can explain this away without appealing to kosher laws, the point remains: it is not clear what laws existed before Sinai. The “moral” law remains ever ill-defined.
Jonathan is right: it is different for us today in how we keep the Bible. We aren’t farmers. There’s no Temple. Women are no longer dependent on men for survival.
But I argue we ought not merely classify-into-obsolescence the commandments we don’t like. It is a slippery slope that ends up in liberal streams of Judaism and Christianity, in which any we can easily dismiss any commandment (e.g. prohibition on homosexuality) with a mere change in its classification.
Shabbat, feasts, and kosher are cultural
“There is a compelling argument to be made that the laws focused on by the Messianic community are cultural in nature, and not binding upon believers in Jesus. Galatians 3:24 refers to the Torah as out teacher. It shows us not only what sin is (the moral code), it shows us how easy it is to be contaminated as well as God’s plan for redemption (the religious code), and how God’s people were to be different than rest of the world (the civil code).
The majority of the laws that the Messianic community insist as binding upon Christians are the religious code, specifically kosher, Sabbath and holidays. These three things were important tools that God used to teach about Himself, His requirements, and His plan for the world. Scripture calls them a shadow (Col 2:17, Heb 8:5, 10:1) that point us to the work of Christ. This DOES NOT diminish their importance. They are God-given shadows. But now that the Messiah has been revealed, we do Him a disservice by focusing on the shadow instead of the One who cast it. These things do not equal His righteousness. Doing them does not justify (save) or sanctify the believer.”
This is Jonathan’s weakest argument, in my view. It’s on shaky Scriptural ground, it creates different laws for different races of people, and doesn’t align with the examples shown to us in the Gospels.
When Jonathan says these things are cultural, what he means to say is they are Jewish, limited to ancient Israel. I do not think Scripture supports that view.
Consider that if Shabbat is cultural, why did God institute the practice when he created the world? The second chapter of Genesis, God makes the 7th day holy by ceasing from all his work. This was before Israel and the Jewish people ever existed. Shabbat cannot be limited to the Jewish people; it predates our very existence.
Undoubtedly, shabbat took on additional significance after Egypt when no rest was given to enslaved Israel.
human beings need a sabbath, don’t we? Consider the 11 year experiment
in which the Soviet Union forbid a weekly sabbath, attempting to out-produce the evil western capitalists and dissolve Jewish and Christian religious practice. It backfired, with production actually lower and the laborers ever unhappy.
That a weekly day of rest is needed for all of humanity, that it’s implemented virtually everywhere in the modern world, demonstrates its universality. Shabbat is a divine principle existing since the beginning of the world, instituted and practiced by God himself. To demote Shabbat as some cultural artifact of Bronze Age Israel is a failure to recognize the wisdom in God’s design.
Consider also the example from the Gospels. If Shabbat was merely a cultural artifact, why did Messiah spend so much time speaking about what is permissible on Shabbat? Why do the Gospels record the Messiah telling his disciples — including us! — that it is permissible to do good works on Shabbat?
As Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine pointed out
, “One does not debate something in which one has no investment.”
If Messiah was really doing away with Shabbat or instead limiting it only for the Jewish people, why didn’t he say that? Why don’t we see, “Look, you Pharisees are accusing me of healing a man on Shabbat. Yep, I healed him, because Shabbat doesn’t matter anymore now that I’m here.” Or even, “Look, Shabbat doesn’t matter for the nations who are coming into my kingdom” – why is that painfully absent? Surely if the Lord wanted to abolish the Sabbath, he would have said something — anything! — to that effect.
Instead, what do we see? Messiah elucidating the principle of Shabbat: it was created for man, and that it is fitting to do good works on Shabbat. Noticeably absent are any words about doing away with Shabbat. (And if he had, surely the Pharisees and Sadducees would have jumped on him for it; they certainly didn’t hesitate to critique the Lord for smaller things.)
Beyond the Gospels, in Acts we see the disciples celebrating Shavuot in the Temple (Acts 2).
We see Stephen at his execution chiding the Pharisees for “receiving the Torah but not keeping it!” (Acts 6).
We see the early Jewish believing community in Acts: “Look how many have come to believe, and how they are all zealous for the Torah.”
We see Paul taking a vow (involving sacrifices!) in the Temple so that “all will realize there is nothing to the things they have been told about you, but that you yourself walk in an orderly manner, keeping the Torah.”
Even in Paul’s epistles, we see him telling the mostly-gentile Corinthians to celebrate Passover. (1 Corinthians 5).
I concur with Jonathan that Shabbat is not among the “weightier matters of the Torah.” But it is something foolish to say the sabbath has been discarded, or otherwise relegated as a cultural artifact of ancient Bronze Age Israel. Such a reading misses the wisdom of God in giving humanity a weekly Sabbath, fails to reckon with Messiah’s example in the Gospels, and ultimately springs from the early Roman Church’s anti-Semitic decree
which forbid resting on Shabbat. (I am not accusing Jonathan or modern Christians of anti-Semitism, but rather, underlining the historical anti-Semitism in early Church history, because its effects persist to this day with regards to the Sabbath.)
Torah doesn’t save, doesn’t sanctify
“As I defended my Torah Observant stance, I always said that Torah doesn’t justify, it sanctifies. I don’t do it to earn salvation, but because I am saved. But Galatians specifically states that Torah Observance doesn’t even do that! Galatians 3:3 “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected [sanctified] by the flesh?” It is only in and through the work of Jesus that we are saved AND made righteous.
Yes and no.
This question has been discussed for 2000 years of Church history. It will not be solved in this blog post. 😊 The question is, “What role, if any, do good works have in sanctifying a person?”
Consider a man who says the sinner’s prayer, but doesn’t live a righteous life. He does whatever he wants: drunkeness every night, sleeps around, mistreating people, ruled by anger and profanity, and produces no good fruit.
Is that man saved? Will he see the Lord in the resurrection?
If we say, “That man is saved”, then we are consistent: works have no role in sanctifying a person. However, what kind of faith are we preaching when a person’s works don’t factor into his righteousness? A weak and anemic faith that produces lazy, shrugging people who can hardly be called disciples of the Master.
But if we say, “That man may not have eternal life”, then we agree that works must have some role in a person’s life. Put another way, if you are walking with the Lord, your works should reflect that walk. And this is the position of Torah loving Messianic people.
Christians may object, “The man was sanctified by faith – but made guilty by his works.” This is mere theological nitpicking and has no functional difference: the end result is that works are required for living a righteous life.
Grace saves us? Grace sanctifies us? Or works sanctify us? This back-and-forth debate has raged for millenia in Christianity because both sides have Scripture to back them up:
- Pro-grace folks will say, “His grace is sufficient for me! There is nothing I can do to make myself closer or further from God. It’s purely God’s sovereignty and grace.”
- Pro-works folks will respond, “We are created for good works in Messiah which he prepared for us beforehand.”
- Pro-grace folks will protest, “We are saved by grace through faith, and not by works, lest any man boast!”
- Pro-works folks will respond, “Let your light shine before men so that they may see your good works and glorify our Father in heaven.”
- Pro-grace folks will protest, “Abraham had faith and it was credited to him as righteousness!”
- Pro-works folks will respond, “Wasn’t Abraham our father proved righteous by his works when he offered up Isaac on the altar? You see that faith worked together with his good works, and his faith was completed by his works.”
Certainly in the last few decades, Evangelical Christianity has shifted towards the pro-grace side of the debate. So much, in fact, that Evangelical Jewish Christian scholar Michael Brown (himself very pro-grace!) had to write a book cautioning against hyper-grace.
So what’s the answer?
Well, we know God saves people without any prerequisites. A man who, in genuine repentance for his sinful lifestyle who comes to God on his knees and repents from the heart and turns to God – surely God saves that man. No works required. If it weren’t so, David’s stirring plea in Psalm 51 was in vain, and the thief on the cross is lost forever.
As for works? We know God desires for us to do good works. Without them, we are like the barren tree that refused to produce fruit. Messiah said he will cast off such people. Messiah said that if we don’t do the good works of Torah — caring for the widow, the orphan, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned — that we are fit to be cast into the fire.
There is a tension at play here and I cannot claim to fully understand it. But I am convicted that God saves people through his favor and goodness, and we ought to respond with good works for the Lord, the kind defined in the Torah and Gospels.
Summary, And a Challenge for Jonathan
Jonathan may not be called to the Hebrew Roots movement. It is not for everyone. To be candid, given the conspiracy theories and rampant false prophecies in Hebrew Roots, he may find a better home for him and his family in the Baptist church. Many Hebrew Roots congregations are not a nurturing home for families and children. (May God convict us and change our direction.)
It’s clear Jonathan still sees the good in Torah. At the end of his post, Jonathan gives thanks for the Torah and says Christians who are anti-Torah don’t get it. From what I know of Jonathan, he is likely to continue doing the weightier matters of the Torah in his own life and family.
I hope also Jonathan still sees the remarkable significance of Israel and the Jewish return to Yeshua. I am glad most Evangelicals are blessing Israel. It is nothing short of a miracle in our age that a people 2000 years removed have resurrected our language, returned to our homeland, and saw in significant numbers for the first time in 1700 years a return to Yeshua among Yeshua’s own people. It will result, as Paul says in Romans 11, with the Jewish people returning en masse to Yeshua like life from the dead. We desperately need pro-Israel, Zionist believers in the Church. Evangelical Christianity is one of few remaining friends of the Jewish people. I don’t know what the Lord has in store, but maybe Jonathan has a role to play in that space.
My challenge to Jonathan is, consider that the role of the Torah is more than showing us our sin. Consider that the Torah still has a role to play in the lives of Yeshua’s disciples. Consider that it can still instruct us in how to live.
Take Passover: yes, it points to Messiah. But Messiah imbued it with new meaning when he said, “This is my body which is given for you.” He imbued Passover with new meaning when he took the cup and said “This is my blood, the blood of the New Covenant.” Why discard something Messiah imbued with new meaning? And if our answer is the eucharist, why replace what God commanded and Messiah celebrated with a human tradition that severed its connection to Israel? Traditions are nice and all, but the eucharist has lost its connection to Jewish Passover Lamb of God, the deliverance from Egypt, the inheritance of the commonwealth of Israel that we as disciples of the Jewish Messiah enjoy.
Consider that Shabbat is not merely a cultural commandment, because it was God who instituted it long before Jacob was born. Demonstrating God’s wisdom, a weekly day of rest has proven necessary for all humanity even today.
Shabbat and the feasts and kosher are not weighty matters. You’re right that there has been imbalance in Hebrew Roots on these things. But these things are still from God, still relevant, still divine wisdom, still good instruction. The commandments of God ought to be our delight. They are an antidote to the creeping secularization and immorality of our Western culture. For all the foolishness in Hebrew Roots, we most certainly do stand against the immoral mores of the culture, and that is a testament to power of God’s commandments.
Finally, I challenge you to keep asking questions.
Ask why Messiah keeps Torah. (And do not be satisfied with easy answers like “So I don’t have to!”)
Ask why does Messiah teaches about what’s lawful on the Sabbath, if we suppose Sabbath is done away with.
Ask why Messiah said Sabbath was created for man, when Evangelical Christianity teaches it was created for Bronze Age Israel.
Ask why Messiah rebuked religious people for missing the weightier matters of the Torah, if the Torah’s commandments are no longer meant to be obeyed.
Ask why the disciples, post-resurrection, were celebrating the Feasts.
Ask why God birthed the Church on Shavuot. (Might He do a mighty work again on His Feasts in the future?)
Ask what role works play in the life of a believer, if works indeed have no role in sanctification. (And if works ought to be done by believers, where are those works defined?)
Ask why Paul keeps the Feasts and commands non-Jewish Corinthians to do the same.
Ask why Paul sacrificed in the Temple and “put an end to the rumors that you speak against Torah.” (And do not be satisfied answers that compromise Paul’s integrity, e.g. “Paul was just doing it to please the Jews.”)
If the Feasts are bound to ancient Israel, ask why the Biblical prophets (e.g. Zech 14) say that all nations will celebrate the Feasts in the last days.
I would suggest to Jonathan that despite the real errors in Hebrew Roots, the problems are with the people. There remains a kernel of truth inside the faith: that the Torah is still good instruction, still relevant for today, still enlightening the eyes, still wisdom from God, bringing about the obedience of faith.
I hope this post has given Jonathan, and you dear reader, Biblical ideas for consideration. And I hope it is a catalyst for change in the Hebrew Roots movement before it loses more good people like Jonathan and his family.