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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

All Contents ©2004-2007 Stuart Dauermann - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Richard John Neuhaus on Kinzer's Book

Richard John Neuhaus is the Editor of "First Things," a well-regarded magazine criquing modern culture from the perspective of serious and ecumenical Christian commitment. Neuhaus is a Roman Catholic Priest, but doesn't flaunt that office. He comes across always as a first-class intellectual with a nuanced understanding of modern culture and of the broader religious scene. I want to direct you ALL to his website, at http://www.firstthings.com/. Look at his musings of May 24, 2006, on Mark Kinzer's new book, often discussed here on my blog, "Post Missionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement With the Jewish People." "First Things" is a good subscription for serious minded and ecumenically oriented intellectuals. What follows is the entirety of Neuhaus's musings on the book, from a running commentary section of his magazine's website. I commend the site and the magazine to all who will find these musings cogent and urbane.

Again, please visit the site and read the posting under May 24, 2006 concerning Kinzer's book. As of June 12, 2005, the URL for this posting is http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/index.php?paged=2

Sunday, May 28, 2006

A New Paradigm For Messianic Jewish Outreach: Catching Up With the Future

The following are my notes for a presentation I gave at the recent Northeast Regional Conference of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) held May 25-28, 2006, at Sturbridge, Massachussetts. In large measure this presentation restates materials found elsewhere on this blog, but both the beginning and ending of this presentation are new.

Stanley Davis's "Future Perfect," is a book about the future. It has much to teach us about doing outreach to our people, Israel.

Davis speaks of “future perfect thinking.” The essence of future perfect thinking is this: We envision an ideal future, and fully immerse our imaginations in what that future will be like. Then we plan backwards, what Davis calls “before-math thinking,” as contrasted with “aftermath thinking.” In aftermath thinking, one analyzes in a post mortem fashion, after the deed is done. In before-math thinking, one conceptualizes as if already an accomplished fact the kinds of deeds to be done, the reality to be experienced, so that one plans in such a manner as to reach that reality, that nexus of deeds.

In other words, Davis calls us to learn to plan from the future backwards. Knowing what kind of future that awaits us enables us to plan for it. We need to catch up with the future. The future is like a train that has already left God’s station. If we are stuck in the past, or cemented in the present, we will miss the train. The train has already departed—we must know where the future-train is headed, we must know the direction of the future and catch up with it. Otherwise we will be left on the platform winded, disappointed, and irrelevant.

In today’s talk we are going to begin to do some before=math thinking—we are going to discuss what it is that we know about God’s future for the Jewish people, and begin thinking about what that means for us that we might make proper plans and take appropriate action to catch that future train .

Five Fullnesses of God

I find it helpful to sketch out the context of what God is doing in the world under the heading of five fullnesses which may be compared to the five fingers of your hand. These five fullnesses do not replace each other in the purposes of God: rather they supplement each other, build on each other, if you will. To grasp the metaphor, let's use the fingers of our own hands. If you are right handed, use that hand to grasp the fingers of your left hand; if you are left handed, then use those fingers to grasp the fingers on your right hand. We are going to returning to those fingers one at a time to help us remember where we are in God’s scheme of things, first one finger, then two fingers together, then three fingers together, etc.

Let’s begin with the smallest finger, the “pinky.” Grasp that finger with the fingers of your other hand. Feel the grasp. Now realize that this finger stands for the first fullness, “the fullness of Torah.”

The Fullness of Torah

The Bible reminds us in Psalm 19, “Torat Adonai temimah - The Torah of the Lord is Perfect.” Of course, this is not an isolated idea in Scripture. Just mining through Psalm 119, one will find multiple echoes of this assessment of the instruction of the Holy One. In the Newer Covenant, Paul refers to the law as “holy, just and good” [Romans 7]. And James/Ya’akov, our Messiah’s brother, refers to the Torah as “the perfect Law that gives freedom.” This last reference is echoed in rabbinic writings as well where they remark on the similarity of two words—“charut" and “cherut."

The Hebrew word “charut” means “engraved’ as in Exodus 32, “15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.” Ya’akov picks up on the observation of our tradition, that “charut” sounds like “cherut,” meaning “freedom.” So both the rabbis and James in the Newer Testament refer to the Torah as giving freedom, and in Ya’akov’s case, he refers to it as “the perfect law.” We read also in the Newer Covenant of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Immerser, who “walked in all the commandments and ordinances of the Law blameless.” The point then is well established—the Torah is a full, perfect thing. So much, for the time being, with the fullness of Torah.

The Fullness of Messiah
Now grab both your “pinky” and the finger next to it, to remind us that we are moving to the second fullness.

Scripture of course speaks of another fullness, the fullness of Messiah. We read, for example, how “when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born under [the era of] the Torah, that we [in this instance, referring to the Gentile nations] might receive the adoption as sons" [Israel had already been adopted at Sinai!] And we read elsewhere of the Messiah, “of his fullness have we all received, and grace upon grace.” We read in the Pauline letters of “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Messiah.” Yes, there is a fullness from God that comes through the coming of Messiah—a fullness of blessing and of redemption, a fullness that came to us when the time had fully come.

But this is not all! Yeshua spoke of another fullness, and we have been beneficiaries of that fullness for nearly 2000 years. This is the fullness of the Spirit.

The Fullness of the Spirit

The old King James Version spoke of the coming of the Spirit on the Day Of Pentecost in these words, “when the day of Pentecost had fully come. . . “ and of course that language is helpful to our current study. But the term “fullness” is used elsewhere as well of the Spirit, as we are admonished to be filled with the Spirit. Ever since that special Shavuot, known to the Church world as “the Day of Pentecost,” there has been available a spiritual enduement, and a continuing imperative, “Be not drunk with wine, wherein there is excess, but be filled with the Spirit.” This means being under the control of the Spirit rather than under the control of wine or anything else that alters our inner life.

The Fullness of the Nations

In the eleventh chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul speaks also of pleroma, of fullness. For example, speaking of how the Gentiles, the non-Israel nations, have been beneficiaries of things that happened among the Jewish people, he says “11Again I ask: Did they [Israel] stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. 12But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring!” Here we see that the Gentiles have experienced salvation, having received the spiritual riches provided through the gospel. Later in the letter, Paul will put it this way, “a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.” There we have it, the full number of the Gentiles, or, as other translations put it, “The fullness of the Gentiles.” There is another term for this in the Bible: the Great Commission. The fullness of the Gentiles is the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

But yet another fullness remains. And this brings us to yet another finger, in this case, the thumb, the fifth finger we have counted.

The Fullness of Israel

Paul speaks not only of the fullness of the nations, but of the fullness of Israel, another fullness. Remember, he says of Israel, “11Again I ask: Did they [Israel] stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. 12But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring! [and that is the fullness of Israel]” This is another fullness other than the fullness of the nations. This means that what God is up to among the Jewish people is not simply an extension of the Great Commission—but is another work, a work he is going to do among the Jewish people after the fullness of the nations has come in. He says it again, later in the chapter.

25I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. 26And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
"The deliverer will come from Zion;
he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
27And this is my covenant with them
when I take away their sins."

This fullness of Israel is mentioned frequently in the Prophets—God is up to something in the midst of the earth, and part of that something is his culminating purposes for Israel—the fullness of Israel.

So where are we now? If you have been using your hand as a learning device in the manner I suggested, then we are somewhere in the transition between the fourth and fifth fullness, somewhere on the web connecting your thumb and the pointer finger—somewhere in that time of transition.

Now using the fingers of your other hand as a learning device, what reasons do I have for believing we are in this time of transition? I have five reasons, corresponding to the five fingers.

Five Reasons We Are At That Time of Transition Now

1. Founding of the State of Israel
– The Bible prophesies that all of human history will culminate in a conflict in the Middle East, with the people of Israel living in their land. Zechariah, Chapter 12 puts it this way: “The word of the LORD concerning Israel: Thus says the LORD, who stretched out the heavens and founded the earth and formed the human spirit within: 2See, I am about to make Jerusalem a cup of reeling for all the surrounding peoples; it will be against Judah also in the siege against Jerusalem. 3On that day I will make Jerusalem a heavy stone for all the peoples; all who lift it shall grievously hurt themselves. And all the nations of the earth shall come together against it.”

This prophecy could not be fulfilled for 1900 years, while the Jewish people were in exile from their land. And of course, there are many other prophecies in the Bible which speak of Israel being scattered and then regathered to her Land, including Deuteronomy 30 and Ezekiel 36, among others. Because the people of Israel had been wandering the earth in exile for nearly 1900 years, it was easy for many to accept the verdict of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who promulgated the theory that the Jews are a witness-people condemned to wander the face of the earth, like Cain, as a sign of what happens to those who kill the Son of God. 'Let them live among us, but let them suffer and be continually humiliated."' At the very least, supersessionist theology was emboldened by the "impossibility" of Israel ever being one people in their Land. That is, until 1948. Now the people of Israel are back in their Land, and this is a sign that we are living in changing times.

2. Liberation of Jerusalem - Of course this is closely related to our previous point. Prophecy not only speaks of Israel being regathered to the Land, it also speaks of the Jewish people dwelling in Jerusalem. This only became possible as of 1967, when Jerusalem was liberated and came again into Jewish hands. This too is a sign of the times.

3. Return of Jews from the Countries of the North - The Prophet Jeremiah speaks of a time, “that they shall no longer say, "As the LORD lives who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt,' 8but, "As the LORD lives who brought up and led the descendants of the house of Israel from the north country and from all the countries where I had driven them.' And they shall dwell in their own land” (Jeremiah 23:7-8). The country of the North” (Jer 23:7-8). It is generally agreed that the land of the north spoken of here is the former Soviet Union (FSI), which officially dissolved on Christmas Day, 1991. Only fifteen years ago, it was front page news when even one Jew got out of the FSI and emigrated to Israel. Persons attempting to do so but commonly denied legal sanction to do so were termed “refuseniks” people who had been refused permission to leave. Following the sagas of such people was something of a media preoccupation in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In the late 1980’s, as Mikhail Gorbachev brought glasnost and perestroika policies, and especially with the break-up of the FSI, the refusenik phenomenon disappeared. Since that time, some 1.1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union emigrated to Israel. One cannot find a Messianic Jewish congregation in all of Israel without its share of Jews from the former Soviet Union. This is an amazing sign of the times.

4. Spiritual renewal of the Jewish people - revival among our people. As we will see later in our study, the prophets routinely link the Jewish people’s return to the Land with spiritual renewal. In this connection, it is fascinating to note that many Jewish people have come to a lively faith in Yeshua and to spiritual renewal since 1967, when Jerusalem was liberated. This is true not only of Western Jews, but also of Jews from the FSI. The juxtaposition of a return to the Land with a manifest spiritual renewal is certainly a sign of the times. These are not matters that people could have engineered—they are surely the work of God.

5. The rebirth of a concern for Torah living among Messianic Jews. It is one thing to be gathered to the Lord, and another to be gathered to the Land, Both of these are joined in Scripture to another phenomenon—a return of the Jewish people to covenant faitfulness—to the ways of Torah.

Repeatedly, Scripture tell us that when the Jewish people turn to the Lord in the latter days, when they return to the Land in the latter days, when they experience spiritual renewal in the latter days, this return to the Lord and to the Land, and this spiritual renewal will be accompanied by a return of the Jewish people to the ways of Torah. We will be looking at this in some detail later in this presentation. But what interests us now is the recognition that there has been a renewed stirring among Messianic Jews for a return to the ways of Torah, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and to the honor of Yeshua the Messiah. This is a new phenomenon that would not even have occurred to us even thirty years ago. Now it is in the air, and people are lining up for and against a Messianic Jewish return to Torah faithfulness. When seen against the background of Scriptures such as Deuteronomy 30, Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36, this is most certainly another sign of the times—a sign that we are somewhere in the transition between the fourth and fifth fullness—the fullness of the nations being supplemented by another fullness, the fullness of Israel.

Let’s look at these matters more closely from a slightly different perspective.

At the 2004 Delegates Meeting of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations held in Boston, Massachussetts, just before the UMJC Annual Conference, one delegate remarked on “living in wonderful times when prophecy is being fulfilled and our people are returning to the Land.”

Such rhetoric is common in our movement. I myself really love the Bible, and am going through a refreshing of my zeal for reading Scripture. But I fear that despite how Scripture pertaining to the return to the Land is bandied about in our circles, we are failing to pay sufficient attention to the wider context of these references. These scriptures frequently also speak of the return being accompanied by a supernatural Jewish return to covenant faithfulness—a return of our people to honoring God though embracing a life ordered by Torah.

Although most agree that our people will “return to the Lord” in the latter days, we have forgotten to ask “What shape will this return take?” And Scripture is clear: that return will be evidenced in a return to Torah-based covenant faithfulness.
What I am suggesting today is a paradigm shift: a fundamental change in viewpoint that generates new questions and new answers, resulting in the expiration of formerly prevailing paradigms.

This paradigm shift includes fundamental changes in perspective in what we mean by effective outreach.

Among these expiring paradigms is the one which conceives of outreach as primarily a matter of making the sale, or closing the deal. In our evangelicalized culture, we are too wedded to a sales model of outreach. We make our pitch to the person we are “witnessing” to, who is called a “contact.” We know we have closed the sale when the “contact” prays to “accept Messiah as their personal Savior.” Forgive me, but this sounds too much like a person signing on the dotted line.

Another inadequate concept of outreach sees it primarily in terms of increasing the size of our congregational population. Outreach then becomes not so much a matter of sales, as a matter of advertising. This model is similar to various communications approaches to “witnessing.” Here again, the emphasis is on numbers, on statistics, on the bottom line.

A third expiring paradigm is the one which seeks to motivate outreach and reception of the message through a carrot and stick approach: "find heaven, avoid hell." There are many problems with utitilzing this motivation, and I will not cover all of them here. But it will do to point out that Yeshua and the Apostles do not use this motivation as standard operating procedure in their own outreach to Jews. In some circles, this is the motivation, the bottom line. I challenge such parties to search the book of Acts and the Gospels for evidence that this approach was foundational to the outreach ministries of Yeshua and the Emissaries, as motivation for either the messengers or their target audience. I do not want to minimize the significance of heaven and hell, God forbid. But, really, we know so little about these things. At the very least, it is highly suspicious that this motivational structure is axiomatic in some circles, and obviously not so in the preaching of Yeshua and the Emissaries, certainly not to a Jewish audience.

Yes, I am aware of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. However, this was a parable about the consequences of heedlesss, heartless, determined wickedness. It certainly does not deserve primacy of place as a template for our outreach to our people! And, yes, Yeshua did preach to the Jewish people in view of a coming catastrophe--but, as Scot McKnight has highlighted in his excellent book, "A New Vision for Israel: The Ministry of Jesus in National Context," this coming catastrophe was the impending judgment/destruction of Jerusalem. And yes, Yeshua did speak of "the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth," but again, neither he nor the Apostles/Emissaries used the "find heaven, avoid hell" motivation as a template for their approaches to the Jewish people--which contrasts sharply with those in our day for whom the heaven/hell issue is axiomatic and seen to be a touchstone of doctrinal and methodological orthodoxy.

In addition, on a purely pragmatic basis alone, since we know so little of heaven and hell, and since one is hard pressed to find anyone who truly believes in such, this constitutes a most inadequate motivation for outreach and for people to embrace the Messiah. It is as if we were urging people to accept Yeshua to avoid Martian Sand Fever. This is not an ailment they believe in, nor is it one they feel motivated to avoid.

Confrontational approaches are hardly more satisfactory. These seem to vitiate the very nature of the kingdom message, robbing it of its relational spirit. Such approaches are overly message-centered while treating respectful and real relationships as secondary or purely utilitarian. I remember a woman telling me that she could always expect a phone call from “her missionary” on Thursday night, because Friday was the day when statistical reports had to be handed in to mission officials. This kind of utilitarian approach which cares about the message, while treating the recipients as a means to other ends, is far from satisfactory. We recognize that this kind of approach does violence to the deeply relational nature of the God who is altogether good and His good news. This too is an approach that is expiring, and deservedly so.

All of these approaches are inadequate because they are products of our Western market mentality—they are not transcendent but limited cultural artifacts.
What then am I proposing? What is a better paradigm for effective Messianic Jewish outreach? And equally to the point, what kind of paradigm can we find that does greater justice to Scripture’s foundations for an understanding of Messianic Jewish outreach?

I am proposing that at the very least we need a new definition such as this one:
Messianic Jewish outreach is the Messianic Jewish remnant of Israel being what it should be, and doing what it should do with respect to God’s consummating purposes for the descendants of Jacob.

We are used to thinking of ourselves as part of the remnant of Israel. However, I wonder how many of us have given attention to the responsibilities of the remnant? Those responsibilities include at least the following.

(1) The Messianic Jewish remnant is supposed to serve as a sign that God has a continuing purpose for the Jewish people.

(2) The Messianic Jewish remnant is supposed to be a demonstration of that purpose - a proleptic preview, a sort of “preview of coming attractions.

(3) The Messianic Jewish remnant is supposed to be a catalyst assisting greater Israel toward that Divine purpose.

If effective Messianic Jewish outreach is inseperably rooted in God’s consummating purposes for the descendants of Jacob, then, if we would be effective in outreach, our first order of business is to root out and attend to the God-given cues, especially in Scripture, of this ultimate purpose. How else can we be a sign of that purpose, a demonstration of that purpose, and a catalyst toward that purpose if we don’t know what it is?

What does Scripture say about God’s consummating purpose for the descendants of Jacob?

Repeatedly and often Scripture portrays God’s ultimate purpose for Israel in terms of a national return to covenant faithfulness as manifest in Torah obedience. And often, this return to covenant faithfulness is linked to the return of our people to the Land. Time permits mentioning only a few passages of Scripture which portray this connection between a Jewish return to the Land, and our return to the Lord as expressed in Torah-based covenant-faithfulness

One example is the thirtieth chapter of Deuteronomy. Notice the repeated linkage of return to the Lord, return to the Land, and return to the Law, that is, Torah obedience.

30:1 Now it shall come to pass, when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God drives you, 2and you return to the LORD your God and obey His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3that the LORD your God will bring you back from captivity, and have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the nations where the LORD your God has scattered you. . . 6And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. . . . 8And you will again obey the voice of the LORD and do all His commandments which I command you today. 9The LORD your God will make you abound in all the work of your hand. . . 10if you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law, and if you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Another example is the very familiar and central Messianic Jewish text, Jeremiah 31:31 ff., where again, renewal of the people is expressed in a return to Torah obedience.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Perhaps the strongest prophetic text on this end-time return to the Lord, to the Land, and to the Law, is found in Ezekiel 36, beginning at verse 24. This text reads like a checklist which we need to ratify in all aspects if we would be true to Scripture.

Ezekiel 36:24”For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land.” (Regathering: We are all prepared to say “Amen” to this: Hallelujah, we believe in the regathering of our people to the Land). 36:25 “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.” (Renewal: We are all prepared to say “Amen” to this national spiritual renewal as well). 36:26 “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (We say “Hallelujah” to this as well: national regeneration. . .a new heart of stone instead of a heart of flesh). But then things get “difficult”—at least for some of us wedded to an old and expiring paradigm. Read on.

36:27 “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.” (Here is where we have for too long applied our brakes. But it is clear that this return to the Lord, this return to the Land, is evidenced and accompanied by a return to the commandments God gave to our people. This is all signed, sealed, and delivered through an “inclusio,” a verse ending this section which echoes what was said at the beginning of the section). 36:28 “Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God.”

Nothing could be clearer: return to the Lord, return to the Land and return to the Law of God are all joined in Scripture. (And yes, I am well aware that it is reductionist to refer to the commandments, statutes and ordinances of Scripture, and to Torah in general as “Law.” But let’s face it, it makes for good alliteration).
In the Newer Testament, Romans 11 further explores aspects of this consummating purpose for the descendants of Jacob. Romans 9-11 ends in a doxology of astonishment. Paul is awestruck and astonished at the surprising outworking of God’s consummating purposes Who would have guessed that the people of Israel would turn down their Messiah when God sent Him? And who would have guessed that the nations of the world would come to a living relationship with the God of Israel without having to become Jews first? And who would have guessed that at the end of history, God would bring the Jewish people back to Himself in covenant faithfulness through this same Messiah—with the Jews returning to God in the context of Jewish life, in the power of the Spirit, and through the very same Messiah through whom the Nations of the world turned to this same God—while not having been required to embrace Jewish life?. How astounding! How miraculous! How unexpected and uniquely the work of God!

Is it not clear that this is what is astonishing the Apostle? Or do we imagine that the best God can pull off at the end of history, when “all Israel will be saved,” is that massive numbers of Jews will become Baptists, Pentecostals, or Presbyterians?
To just ask the question is to answer it.

We must remember that in Romans 11, Paul is contrasting Israel and the nations as aggregates. He is not speaking of Gentile and Jewish individuals, but of these respective groups, the same dyad as is found throughout the Older Testament: Israel and the nations.

God’s final act toward the Jews will be directed to us as a people—he will bring the Jewish people to covenant faithfulness to Himself through the one despised by the nation [Isaiah 49; Zech 12; Isaiah 53].

Therefore, as part of the remnant of Israel, our responsibility is as follows:

1. Our outreach is accomplished as we serve as a sign that God has a continuing purpose for the Jews, a consummating purpose of a national turning to renewed covenant faithfulness in obedience to Torah in the power of the Spirit through Yeshua the Messiah.

2. Our outreach is accomplished as we demonstrate communally that we are a demonstration of that purpose - an anticipation, a preview of that covenant faithfulness which will one day be true of all Israel: a return to Torah-living in the power of the Holy Spirit, and to the honor of Yeshua the Messiah.

3. Our outreach is accomplished as we catalyze and assist greater Israel toward that Divine purpose.

If this analysis of Scripture is true, what will be the results for how we pursue outreach?

First, outreach would no longer be adversarial and confrontational. We would commend all religious Jewish efforts toward Torah-based covenant faithfulness. For example, when religious Jews come to our conferences to oppose what we stand for, we would commend them for their attempt to honor God in the context of Torah obedience, while still differing with them in their disparagement of faith in Yeshua. In our communities, we would seek to assist and applaud all efforts by religious Jews to honor God in the context of Torah. We would not feel obliged to adopt some sort of adversarial posture.

Second, we ourselves would form communities committed to this kind of Torah-based covenant faithfulness, for we could not be faithful to our remnant responsibility unless we served as a sign, demonstration and catalyst of this kind of faithfulness with respect to God’s consummating purpose for all Israel. But our Torah faithfulness would be unique to ourselves in some ways due to the impact of Yeshua and the Emissaries on our halacha, our honoring of Yeshua, and our experience of the Spirit.

Third, our mission to the wider religious Jewish world would be to advocate faith in Yeshua and the power of the Spirit as Divine means toward their own greater covenant faithfulness. This moves outreach beyond simply individual soul salvation. While not discounting this, it would be bigger, and also true to the sweep of Scripture. We would be seeking to take the wider Jewish religious world further in the direction in which they are already heading—in the power of the Spirit and through Yeshua the Messiah.

Fourth, in addition to affirming and yet further catalyzing and challenging religious Jews, our ministry to secularized Jews would be very strong: a call back to the God of our ancestors and the ways of our ancestors, and a call back to Jewish community through Yeshua the Messiah in the power of the Spirit.

Fifth, the support of church people for our efforts would involve their applauding us for being fully Jewish rather than wooing us to be more like themselves.
They would realize that moving deeper into Jewish life is our Divine destiny and our remnant responsibility.

Sixth, we would be returning to a communal concept of outreach rather than an individualistic one.

Seventh, this paradigm provides us with deeper and better motivations for outreach to our people.

Such outreach proclaims the Name of Jesus, not the neediness of Jews.
Sometimes mission approaches to the Jewish people include the assumption or even declaration of the emptiness and inadequacy of Jewish religious practice and faith. In contrast, the apostolic motivation for outreach to Jewish people was driven by the realization that in Yeshua, the long awaited Messiah had come. The oft-quoted passage, “There is no other name given among mortals by which we must be saved,” comes in a context where Peter and John were seeking to lift up the name of Jesus rather than put down the Jewish people: “for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:12, 20). We would do well to imitate their example and lift up the name of Yeshua without denigrating the holy things already given to the Jewish people (see Romans 3:1-4; 9:1-5).

Such outreach is founded on bringing honor to God, which is the highest motivation we can have in all of life, including our outreach. Indeed, it was honoring God which was foundational to the Messiah’s Prayer—it is the first petition on the prayer—“Hallowed be thy Name.” The honor of God is enhanced, and His reign established, when His people honor the Messiah whom He sent.

Newer Covenant texts such as Matthew 23:39, Acts 3:19-21, and Romans 11:12, 15, imply that Israel’s acceptance of Yeshua will inaugurate the Kingdom, thus establishing and extending God’s reign. Looking toward that day, we seek to model and advance honoring Him among our people, Israel, that His name might be hallowed “on earth as it is in heaven.”

All of this is crucially important for a number of reasons:

(1) It is important because it better aligns Messianic Jewish outreach with the revealed purposes of God for the Jewish people.

(2) It is important because it is an antidote to culturally determined and limited sales-oriented approaches to the task.

(3) It is important because it instantly neutralizes the adversarial posture that we have inherited from generations past which ill-serves the greater purposes of God.

(4) It is important because it calls us also to a return to Jewish covenant faithfulness.

(5) It is important because it challenges us to expand and reevaluate the role of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our congregations and our Union. And finally,

(6) it is important because it addresses the biggest problem, the biggest obstacle, in Messianic Jewish outreach.

The biggest obstacle in Messianic Jewish outreach is the widespread assimilation of Jewish believers. The Jewish community has a right to assume that when the Messiah comes, he will make Jewish people into better Jews. When the perceived effect of the faith in Yeshua is that Jewish believers become assimilated and indifferent to Jewish life and community, the Jewish community has a right to say: “Don’t be ridiculous! Put your Bibles away and don’t waste your time trying to convince us! How could this Yeshua be the Messiah if he makes Jews into goyim?” This objection has all the truth in the world behind it. But our own return to Jewish covenant faithfulness, which is the will of G-d for the remnant and for all Israel, has the added benefit of making this objection null and void.

Is God’s final act in history going to involve making millions of Jews into Baptists or does Scripture rather affirm that God is going to trigger a massive return of His people to Him in Jewish covenantal faithfulness, where he will write the Torah of Moses on their hearts, through Yeshua the Messiah and in the power of the Spirit?
What kind of paradigm shift in Messianic Jewish outreach is this analysis calling us to? What is supposed to be the shape of Jewish faithfulness to God? And what does it mean for us to be the faithful remnant? What is the shape of this remnant faithfulness?

If we really care about Messianic Jewish outreach, if we are really the remnant of Israel, if we are serious about Scripture, shouldn’t we at least be giving deep consideration to what I have proposed by way of a fundamental change in perspective, a paradigm shift?

What is the remnant supposed to do? Can we as a movement be faithful to God without rightly answering this question?

As we come to the conclusion of our presentation, we would do well to consider why this matter of shifting paradigms is so very important. In order to do that, we might reference a story told by Joel Barker in his book “Paradigms : Business of Discovering the Future.”

In 1968, Switzerland dominated the world of watchmaking, with over 65% of the unit sales in the world and more than 85% of the profits. They were constant innovators and on the cutting edge of research in all aspects of their watches. By 1980 their world market share had collapsed to less than 10% and 50,000 of the 62,000 watchmakers had lost their jobs. What happened?

Something profound. They had run into a paradigm shift - a change in the fundamental rules of watchmaking. Everything the Swiss were good at - the making of gears and bearings and mainsprings, etc. - was irrelevant to the new way.

The irony was that this disaster was totally avoidable. The Swiss themselves invented the electronic quartz movement at their research institute in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Yet, when the Swiss researchers presented this revolutionary new idea to the Swiss manufacturers in 1967, it was rejected. It couldn't possibly be the watch of the future! So sure were the manufacturers of that conclusion that they let their researchers showcase their useless invention at the World Watch Congress that year. Seiko took one look, and the rest is history.

So what will it be for us? Will we catch up with the train of God’s future for the Jewish people? Or will we be left on the platform, rooted in the past, stuck in the present, but irrelevant to that future which is already on the move.

Curtis Mayfield put it this way:

People get ready
There's a train a comin'
You don't need no baggage you just get on board
All you need is faith
To hear the diesel comin'
Don't need no ticket you just thank the Lord

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Back to the Basics - The Most Important Role of Religion

(The following is a sermon for Parshat Behar/Bechukotai presented May 20, 2008 at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue Beverly Hills, CA. It highlights the most important role of a religious tradition)

Jeremiah 16:19 - 17:14

19 O Lord, my strength and my stronghold,
My refuge in a day of trouble,
To You nations shall come
From the ends of the earth and say:
Our fathers inherited utter delusions,
Things that are futile and worthless.
20 Can a man make gods for himself?
No-gods are they!
21 Assuredly, I will teach them,
Once and for all I will teach them
My power and My might.
And they shall learn that My name is Lord.

Chapter 17

1 The guilt of Judah is inscribed
With a stylus of iron,
Engraved with an adamant point
On the tablet of their hearts,
And on the horns of their altars,
2 While their children remember
Their altars and sacred posts,
By verdant trees,
Upon lofty hills.
3 Because of the sin of your shrines
Throughout your borders,
I will make your rampart a heap in the field,
And all your treasures a spoil.
4 You will forfeit, by your own act,
The inheritance I have given you;
I will make you a slave to your enemies
In a land you have never known.
For you have kindled the flame of My wrath
Which shall burn for all time.

5 Thus said the Lord:
Cursed is he who trusts in man,
Who makes mere flesh his strength,
And turns his thoughts from the Lord.
6 He shall be like a bush in the desert,
Which does not sense the coming of good:
It is set in the scorched places of the wilderness,
In a barren land without inhabitant.
7 Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord,
Whose trust is the Lord alone.
8 He shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
Its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit.

9 Most devious is the heart;
It is perverse — who can fathom it?
10 I the Lord probe the heart,
Search the mind —
To repay every man according to his ways,
With the proper fruit of his deeds.

11 Like a partridge hatching what she did not lay,
So is one who amasses wealth by unjust means;
In the middle of his life it will leave him,
And in the end he will be proved a fool.

12 O Throne of Glory exalted from of old,
Our Sacred Shrine!
13 O Hope of Israel! O Lord!
All who forsake You shall be put to shame,
Those in the land who turn from You
Shall be doomed men,
For they have forsaken the Lord,
The Fount of living waters.

14 Heal me, O Lord, and let me be healed;
Save me, and let me be saved;
For You are my glory.

There are many ways one can compare religions and spiritual choices. Which religion has the best music? The best ethics? The most social approval? The best explanations and arguments? The most appealing meditative practices? The most elegant liturgy? The deepest historical roots?

There are all kinds of criteria people use to comparison shop for a religion.

Today’s Haftarah {Jeremiah 16:19-17:14) takes us down to bedrock in these matters, beyond all the hype, the glitz, the shopping-around mentality, and the advertising. Today’s Haftarah tells us there is, in the end, one question, one criterion, one factor that matters above all others when evaluating a religion, a religious tradition, a body of sacred lore vying for your attention. And here it is:

Does this body of sacred lore, religious tradition tell the truth about life, yourself and the One True God, connecting you with Him?

This is not a fashionable, hip question. We live in a world that prefers to politely assume that everyone has their own religious path and all roads inevitably to a God who is big enough to accept any and all doctrinal variations and god concepts—a God who is the Great Ocean into which all the tributaries and streams of various religions disappear, all becoming part of the same immense, all encompassing reality.

Today’s text disagrees. Sharply. Totally. It leaves us with no alternative but to either agree or disagree strongly.

Today’s text contrasts the knowledge of the true God with “utter delusions”—falsehoods—lies.

The contrast is with hand-made gods contrasted with the God who made all, but it applies also to “mind-made” gods—gods that are the product of people’s preferences and imaginations. The text speaks of false altars and sacred posts, which were likely carved images of the goddess Asherah, related to fertility rites [this is why the altars and sacred poles were “by verdant trees upon lofty hills.”] God says, “once and for all I will teach them my power and my might and they shall learn that my name is Hashem”—they will learn that there is really only one true God, and all else is lies.

In this passage varied reasons are given or inferred as to why the people of Israel would do better to seek the Living and True God rather than the idols of humanity’s minds, hands, and preferences. And the language of this passage reminds us that the choice is a momentous one—will it be the Living and True God or whatever else comes off the potters wheel, out of the forge, or to the tip of your tongue?

God says that he is going to deal harshly with them—he will make their rampart a heap in the field—Jerusalem will fall, and they will become slaves to their enemies in a land they have not known. And this certainly proved true. Our people were exiled, Jerusalem destroyed, while the holy people languished in an unclean land, taunted by those who challenged them to “sing to us one of the songs of Zion.”

In our reading we see how God places a curse on the person who trusts in man instead of God, who turns his thoughts from God to something else. Such a person is doomed to barrenness, while he who trusts in the Lord, and who trusts in the Lord alone is like a tree planted by streams of water—fertile, green and fruitful.

Our text reminds us that it is our own devious hearts that lead us away from such truths and verities. And it is to the LORD, the King of Israel, and His Temple—that is, to the worship of Hm, that we must turn, and Him we must seek. He alone is the Fount of living waters, the source of life and livingness in contrast to dead idols which neither live nor impart life.

So what does this mean for us? Just this. We ought never to lose sight of the fact that if our faith is true, what it does for us, why it is commendable to us and worth commending to others is only for one reason—our faith puts us in touch with the one True God. That is really the bottom line and everything else, although in some cases important, is relatively unimportant.

Now before I go. I want to make something clear that Scripture makes clear. Just because we are in touch with the One True God doesn’t mean that things will always go our way, and that we just have to ask, and there it is—whatever it is that we want. There are some religious groups, churches, televangelists who teach this way. But they are not presenting the True and Living God. They are presenting an idol.

It is just as it was with the Israelites when they came out of Egypt. Restless because Moses delayed on the Mount, they prevailed upon Aaron to build for them a golden calf, made out of their trinkets. And when they saw the Golden Calf which they had made, what did they say? "This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" In other words, they substituted an idol, a God of preference and convenience for the One True God, and they foisted this idol upon themselves in the Name of the LORD. We, and the televangelists I mentioned, must be wary of making the same mistake—of constructing a idol in the name of God.

As I said, the most important thing about a body of sacred lore, a religious tradition, a spirituality is that it tell us truth about God, life and yourself, and put you in touch with the One True God.

I am clinging at this time in my life to the verse in Psalm 27 where David says, “I would have despaired unless I believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” But I am also here to say that God does not always do what we want Him to do, nor do we always understand his ways. There are times when he does not appear to intervene in the matters that are closest to our hearts, no matter how hard we pray, no matter how much we earnestly promise Him our dearest devotion. There are times when, despite our deepest prayers and pleadings, something goes wrong. Certainly this was the case for Righteous Job—who had done nothing to deserve the calamities that struck him, as in one day, his herds, his flocks, his wealth, his health, his sons and his daughters were all taken from him. At that time, he said things which perfectly enshrines the mature attitude to which today’s text is calling all of us.

“Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will return there. ADONAI gave; ADONAI took; blessed be the name of ADONAI. . . Are we to receive the good at God's hands but reject the bad?" In all this Job did not say one sinful word” [Job 1:21; 2:10].

These quotations can only come from a person who has driven all idolatry from their heart, who is utterly devoted to the One True and Living God. Notice, Job’s relationship with God is not based on the good things he gets from that relationship—“shall we receive good at God’s hands but reject the bad?”—he sees both pleasant and unpleasant experiences as all coming from the sovereign hand of God. He also is clear on one thing: Everything we have in this life is pure undeserved gravy—we have no grounds for complaint, and we must learn to be satisfied with whatever our lot in life, comfortable or not, rich or poor, in sickness or in health, in despair or in joy.

I need to say this because the assumption is in the air that the reason we should follow God is that all will go well with us if we do. My answer—not necessarily.

Jerry Sittser is a servant of God, who lost his wife, his four year old daughter and his mother in the same car accident, although he and his other three children survived. I don’t want to imagine what it must have been like for him not only that day, but for many, many days afterward, raising the three remaining children amidst his anquish that the very child he had prayer for daily, his beloved Diana, and his wife and mother, had all died so cruelly, despite his prayers. Yet Jerry Sittser remains a servant of God, and writes of his experience in the valley of the shadow in his book, “The Gift of Unanswered Prayer.” Here is one of his comments from that book:

Strange as it may sound, we need unanswered prayer. It is God's gift to us because it protects us from ourselves. If all our prayers were answered, we would only abuse the power. We would use prayer to change the world to our liking, and it would become hell on earth. Like spoiled children with too many toys and too much money, we would only grab for more. We would pray for victory at the expense of others; we would be intoxicated by power. We would hurt other people and exalt ourselves.

Unanswered prayer protects us. It breaks us, deepens us, and transforms us. Ironically, the unanswered prayers of the past, which so often leave us feeling hurt and disillusioned, serve as a refiner's fire that prepares us for the answered prayers of the future” [Jerry Sittser, “The Gift of Unanswered Prayer.”].

So whatever you do, do not embrace faith in the God of Israel through Yeshua the Messiah simply because your life will be better, although it very well may, and you are sure he will answer your prayers, which He may or may not. In our life of faith, there are no guarantees but this: that the faith we proclaim, by and for which we live, is true, and that it puts us in touch with the true and Living God. And if we will follow Him, we will as a community and as individuals reflect his livingness and His truth in our communal life and relationships.

And finally, this is also, existentially and philosophically why people should believe in Yeshua—because in Him we see and learn the deepest truth about the Living God, and because the more we follow Him, the more we understand, experience, and reflect the True and Living God.

Therefore, if we claim to know Him, to have found Him, our lives must be living and true as He is. People must observe in our lives something of the reality and credibility of the God whom we claim to know. Our community and our families should be an environment where people who know this God support each other, whatever our circumstance in life.

Let us close with words from today’s Torah reading and our New Covenant reading--

Leviticus 26:1 You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the Lord am your God. 2 You shall keep My sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary, Mine, the Lord's.

New Covenant Reading - 1 John 5

18 We know that everyone who has God as his Father does not go on sinning; on the contrary, the Son born of God protects him, and the Evil One does not touch him. 19 We know that we are from God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One. 20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us discernment, so that we may know who is genuine; moreover, we are united with the One who is genuine, united with his Son Yeshua the Messiah. He is the genuine God and eternal life. 21 Children, guard yourselves against false gods!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Be Careful Out There: Toward a Spirituality of Obligation

The following posting is based on a message given on Shabbat Emor at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, CA.

You can only start from where you are and from where you've been, and where the Messianic Jewish Movement has been is in evangelical space, only now really awakening to its destiny, identity, and responsibilities as part of the Remnant of Israel. This being the case, part of my teaching task is to help Messianic Jews realize how our sojourn in evangelical space has, in some ways, conditioned us against things honored in Jewish tradition and found in Scripture, but overlooked by such evangelicalized people. Additionally, one encounters among some Messianic Jews a resistance to positions which are mistrusted because they differ from familiar [and here read "Conservative Evangelical"] paths.

Yet we must have the courage to think new thoughts and reconsider truisms, if we would respond to our God-given responsibilities and destiny and truly allow Scripture and not the familiar to mold our viewpoint and agenda.

One of the areas where I have encountered such intransigence is in the matter of "obligation." I continue to be astounded by how many people treat the idea of obligation as somehow spiritually toxic, as if "freedom of conscience," meaning "I don't have to do what I don't feel like doing" were an unquestioned axiom of biblical, Jewish and even Christian spirituality. I find this to be astounding. Not only that, I find it to be very suspicious that the choices that people make in the area of religion are almost always the ones that demand the least of themselves. Thus, those who elect to keep "biblical kosher" rather than rabbinically kosher are choosing the less burdensome path, and so with many other areas.

Here is an interesting assignment for you: see what people you know in the Messianic Movement who choose a path other than that which rabbinic Judaism chooses, and see if I am not correct that invariably, the path that is chosen and justified is that which makes less demands upon us. Does this not make you suspicious?

I will not easily relinquish my fantasy that relationship with the Living God inevitably involves an element of obligation, and, horrors, even inconvenience. Toward defending that fantasy, I offer the following essay, which could and perhaps ought to be supplemented with many others.

What do you think of the following quotation, found on the web?

We can slide into the thought that when we sin, God is angry with us. Even though surrounded by a pagan world, David [when he killed Uriah] found that God demands nothing. He is a forgiver. Grace has nothing to do with our behavior. God pours out His grace apart from works.

There is much here that sounds familiar to those of us nurtured in evangelical space. But this quote makes me uneasy. Is it true that “God demands nothing?” Is it true that “Grace has nothing to do with our behavior?”

Consider this quotation against two representative quotations from our Torah and Haftarah readings for today, the first from Vayikra/Leviticus 22:31-33, and the second from Ezekiel 44:23-24.

In the first case, the passage concerns all the Israelites: look what they were obliged to do. They had to obey certain rules of life.

31 You shall faithfully observe My commandments: I am the Lord. 32 You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people — I the Lord who sanctify you, 33 I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God, I the Lord.

And the Haftarah concerns an idealized vision of the priesthood, who were meant to be exemplars to all the people of Israel. Just look at all the particulars with which they had to concern themselves.

23 They shall declare to My people what is sacred and what is profane, and inform them what is clean and what is unclean. 24 In lawsuits, too, it is they who shall act as judges; they shall decide them in accordance with My rules. They shall preserve My teachings and My laws regarding all My fixed occasions; and they shall maintain the sanctity of My sabbaths.

By any construal, there were some big things the priests had to keep in mind, obligations that were theirs from God.

Many people operate on the conviction that the Newer Testament, in contrast with the Older, simply requires nothing of us but to believe in Yeshua—plus nothing. In our couch potato generation, this is most appealing—a religion that demands nothing.

But is it true?

Our earlier quotation of a certain construal of Newer Covenant faith is built on the assumption that forgiveness, right standing with God [justification], and emotional comfort about our destiny and relationship with God is ever and always independent of anything we do, of any aspect of our behavior, any action or attitude we might be nurturing. The assumption is that somehow, because of what Messiah did, how we act doesn’t enhance or impede our relationship with God. In fact, “God demands nothing.” This is the ultimate free ride. And in the words of the narcissist credo, “It’s all about me! Whee!”

From the Bible’s perspective, how careful should we about our relationship with God and humanity, about how we live our life? Is it not possible that the emphasis we have inherited which stresses “salvation by grace through faith plus nothing at all” has catered to our native laziness and the narcissism or our age, so that we are all apt not only to be morally and spiritually sloppy about how we live, but also resent as “legalism” or as “oppressive” any person or statement that challenges us to measure up to some sort of standard?

My experience indicates that even among religious people, there is a strong resistance to any demand that we live up to some sort of standard. Furthermore, it is my observation that a surprising number of evangelicalized religious people think, live, and believe as though how we live makes no real difference—that we can live as self-serving and sloppy a life as we want, because, after all, “Jesus paid it all” and “Grace has nothing to do with our behavior. God pours out His grace apart from works.” We are left to relax and look upon the obedient, dedicated life as an option for some, for the superstars, but one we need not take. In fact, if we choose not to go that route, we really lose out on nothing much since it’s all of grace anyway.

I want to demonstrate that this view—that “Grace has nothing to do with our behavior [that] God pours our His grace apart from works,” too often leads to a laziness and carelessness about our walk with God which the New Covenant warns us against in no uncertain terms.

In this treatment I will be focusing on the Newer Testament, since too often, people tend to pit the Newer against the Older Testament, suggesting that a religious culture of obligation is now outmoded. I strongly disagree, and will demonstrate why from the Newer Testament.

I am quoting quite a bit from a book by Paul A. Rainbow, "The Way of Salvation: The Role of Christian Obedience in Salvation," which is helpful in this regard, although he himself unfortunately postulates an overdrawn and supersessionist discontinuity between the Older and Newer Testaments. Still, his analysis of post Reformational misconstrual of the nature of sola fide (by grace alone) and his arguments against such are most useful to the present project.

In addition, I differ with him on his subsuming "salvation" under the umbrella of the faith experience of individuals alone. There is a corporate aspect to matters of salvation, and a Divine concern for the life of nations and people groups, that he misses, as do most conservative evangelicals. These caveats aside, his book is useful for my purposes.

So, consider the following survey of related matters, lightly sketched out.

Sixteenth Century Approaches to Assurance

Luther configured his theology in contrast to the Roman Catholic theology and experience he knew, positing that faith in Yeshua was everything and good works, nothing. In this, he was guilty of overstatement. Calvin too saw faith as utterly removed from and other than works, and sought to keep the two entirely distinct. Some forms of Reformational thinking even to this day tend to make good works superfluous. And, as Krister Stendahl taught us to see, the theological tradition of the West tends to misunderstand Paul through the anxiety ridden experience of Luther. Paul had a robust conscience—he knew himself to have been blameless as to the righteousness of God’s Law: Luther was tormented by doubt, not Paul. We must not read Paul as if he were Luther, which is what many Christian theologies have done.

The Framework for Assurance – Divine Grace - From a New Covenant Perspective

Paul A. Rainbow points out the following:

1. We are saved because of God’s electing purpose. And as Romans 8 reminds us, of those whom God foreknew, all are predestined, justified, and glorified.
2. Yes, there is a sequence of events, but there is no wavering on God’s part as to whether participants in one part will be included in the next. All this is of God.
3. “Our standing with God is firm. The necessity for a future judgment of believers arises not from any possibility that God would change his mind about those whom he has justified for Messiah’s sake, but from God’s own definition of reality that requires an empirical as well as a categorical basis for his verdict."

Grace Attested Within and the Fruits of Transformation

1. But how can one know he/she is a child of God? There are two concrete criteria: The internal witness of the Holy Spirit, and the observable fruits of grace.
2. In the first case, God pours His Spirit into our hearts so that we know ourselves to be His children (Romans 8:15-16; Gal 4:6]. Despite situational variables, believers have profound peace and joy [ Rom 8:28; 14:17; Gal 5:22].
3. In the second case, there are also external fruits of the Spirit which demonstrate and reassure us to be the children of God. We must remember that the presence of the Spirit is sanctifying Presence—he is making us more holy not simply more spooky. “The presence of the Spirit in a life immediately produces changes in behavior, some dramatic, some incremental. . . . [And the Spirit inspires and requires personal effort and struggle]. Paul pummeled his body lest he should be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27). He pressed on, straining forward, that “if possible” he might attain the prize of the resurrection (Phil. 2:11-14). He knew, at life’s end, that he was due for his wreath of victory (2 Tim 4:6-8) [but this because he had ‘fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith]. A lifestyle evolving from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor 3:18) is the evidence of the reality of a claim to belong to the Messiah.

Admixture of Goodness and Sin in the Life of the Yeshua-Believer

1. That there will be fits and starts, that there will be times of great progress, times of leveling off, times of regression and repentant return, is a given. Still, through the Holy Spirit’s presence in us due to our being joined to Messiah, there is a Divine energy and a spiritual gyroscope within us that works to bring us back into balance, that works to set our feet once again on the right path, and that works to fill our sails once more with the wind of the Spirit that we might move in the right direction, serving God with purpose, energy, and a demonstrated attraction to holiness of life. And if we don’t experience this gyroscope, this wind, this other-empowered return to the paths of life and holiness, we should be concerned as to whether we are really joined to Messiah.
2. In 1 Cor. Paul speaks of two instances, one hypothetical, and the other actual, where there is evident sinfulness of life in a believer. In chapter three, he speaks of the person who builds on the foundation of Yeshua the Messiah:

11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Yeshua the Messiah. 12 Some will use gold, silver or precious stones in building on this foundation; while others will use wood, grass or straw. 13 But each one's work will be shown for what it is; the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire - the fire will test the quality of each one's work. 14 If the work someone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward; 15 if it is burned up, he will have to bear the loss: he will still escape with his life, but it will be like escaping through a fire.”

He says that the Day [and here it is surely Judgment Day] will test each man’s work, and the person whose life and work has been junk will be exposed as such. He will suffer loss and will escape with his life but just barely. The important thing to note is that this person is a true believer with a substandard life—and this results in loss in the judgment, but also diminished satisfactions now [when one leads a substandard life, how can she/he have substantial satisfactions? Impossible!]
3. The second case in 1 Cor 5 is actual, of a man who is having sexual relations with his stepmother, a form of second-level incest frowned on even by pagans. In this case too, the prospect of his eventual salvation is mentioned, but it is contingent—it is not a slam dunk. Listen to Paul’s language:

1 It is actually being reported that there is sexual sin among you, and it is sexual sin of a kind that is condemned even by pagans-a man is living with his stepmother! 2 And you stay proud? Shouldn't you rather have felt some sadness that would have led you to remove from your company the man who has done this thing? 3 For I myself, even though I am absent physically, am with you spiritually; and I have already judged the man who has done this as if I were present. 4 In the name of the Lord Yeshua, when you are assembled, with me present spiritually and the power of our Lord Yeshua among us, 5 hand over such a person to the Adversary for his old nature to be destroyed, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord.

Radical action needed to be taken that the person in question might repent and return to the ways of the Lord “so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord [the Day of Judgment]. But what if that radical action were not taken?

4. Paul A. Rainbow comments on these matters in this way: “In neither case did Paul contemplate the salvation of a person who showed apathy towards or contempt for God’s will across the board, for then he would have warned of certain damnation as a consequence (1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; Eph. 5:5-6). Complete lack of inclination to obedience makes it evident that the justification of the subject has never been inaugurated and, unless repentance intervenes, ensures that it will not be culminated. [There is no room for the notion] that a bare profession of faith in Messiah at some past date in one’s life provides everlasting fire-insurance, regardless of whether obedience ever follows.”

5. The best summary of the viewpoint we need to have is found in 2 Peter, chapter one, where we read:

3 God's power has given us everything we need for life and godliness, through our knowing the One who called us to his own glory and goodness. 4 By these he has given us valuable and superlatively great promises, so that through them you might come to share in God's nature and escape the corruption which evil desires have brought into the world. 5 For this very reason, try your hardest to furnish your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, 6 knowledge with self-control, self-control with perseverance, perseverance with godliness, 7 godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if you have these qualities in abundance, they keep you from being barren and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah. 9 Indeed, whoever lacks them is blind, so shortsighted that he forgets that his past sins have been washed away. 10 Therefore, brothers, try even harder to make your being called and chosen a certainty. For if you keep doing this, you will never stumble. 11 Thus you will be generously supplied with everything you need to enter the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Deliverer, Yeshua the Messiah.

Notice the emphasis on effort, and on attaining assurance of our eternal state through proving ourselves to be God’s kind of people. There can be and ought to be no real assurance for people indifferent about the kinds of lives they live because they are trusting in some long ago “decision for Messiah.” We all need to “try even harder to make our being called and chosen a certainty. For if we keep doing this, we will never stumble. Thus we will be generously supplied with everything we need to enter the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Deliverer, Yeshua the Messiah.”

A Spirituality of Duty Rather Than of Possession
“Paul’s daily spirituality was not centered in answering the question, ‘How can I know for sure that I am already saved?’ but in the question ‘ Am I responding in trust and obedience to my Lord in the here and now?’. . . . Nowhere in Paul’s epistles do we find a paragraph which addresses nervousness about individual status and destiny. For a man of Pal’s world view, that question did not arise. Paul devoted himself to faitahfully carrying out his commission in the strength of God’s enablement, sure that God would see to his final salvation. Paul’s strategy . . . is well summed up in the motto ‘Rest in the Lord without presumption, Labor with the Lord without anxiety.’”

We have a choice: We can adapt this common attitude: "God demands nothing. He is a forgiver. Grace has nothing to do with our behavior. God pours out His grace apart from works."

Or we can keep the following in mind.

2 Cor 5:1 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling-- 3if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. 4For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 6 So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord-- 7for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Messiah, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. 11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences.

Ephesians 5:15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.

Be careful out there.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Returning the Favor: Cornelius, the Jews, and the Church

This is a sermon I preached Sunday, April 30, 2006, at a church in Pasadena, California, where Mark Kinzer and I had visited the week before, and Mark had taught a class on the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm. The sermon in part speaks of the kind of relationship of mutual respect we advocate between Christians and Jews. The text is the tenth chapter of the Book of Acts, the story of Peter and Cornelius.

Last Sunday, I sat in your balcony and cried.

I was here with my friend Mark Kinzer, who taught Dr. Bruce Wear’s class that morning. We stayed afterward for the service. You may remember it was a baptismal service.

What moved me about that service was the way Pastors Lori Cornell and Barbara Pettit exuded the warm, unambiguous, welcoming and accepting love of Christ and His church to the two children baptized that day. As I sat up there in the balcony, strangely moved, I realized this: “I’ve been looking for that kind of warm, unambiguous, welcoming and accepting love all my life.”

I’ll bet it’s that way with you too. I’ll bet deep inside you too long to be fully embraced by a love that will not let you go, fully accepted, fully affirmed, fully welcomed . . .and for once in your life really safe.

Today, we are examining together the story of how that kind of love found a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. There are lessons here for every one of us, because all of us are meant to be both recipients . . .and messengers . . . of this kind of love—the love of God.

Cornelius was a centurion, a member of the Italian Cohort. A centurion was a Roman army officer in charge of a hundred men. We read that this particular centurion was a God-fearer--that is to say, he was a monotheist, a Gentile who worshipped the One True God, the God of Israel, and followed the paths of Jewish piety, although stopping short of conversion. In New Testament times, an estimated ten per cent of the population of the Roman Empire consisted of God-fearers.

We read of Cornelius that “2He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3One afternoon at about three o'clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, 'Cornelius.'" Cornelius was praying at 3:00 PM, a time when Jews prayed because it was a time of Temple sacrifice. He also was a man who gave generously to the poor among the people—something called in Jewish life, “ts’dakkah.” More than charity, ts’dakkah is sharing with others what you have yourself, even if you too are needy.

There are so many lessons here for us, and many sermons. But what I want us to notice first is that Cornelius, who is not yet a believer in Jesus, already has a reputation in heaven. The angel calls him by name, and then says to him in “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.”

Let us fast forward to our own lives for a moment. Aren’t there other people you know, people like Cornelius, who are not Christians, who have not accepted baptism as those two boys did last week, but whose lives demonstrate their regard for the true and living God? Such people seek him in prayer, and they serve him in how they treat others.

Can we not hear afresh the message of this text? Are we prepared to believe that such persons who seek the True and Living God, and who seek to serve him in their relationships with others, are already known and valued in heaven—even if it is true that God would like them to receive the blessings of the gospel message, perhaps through our lips. as did Cornelius?

So my first big question for us all is this: “How do we as people of God treat such 'others' who are not of our own fold, but whom God considers to be seekers of Himself?”

This story explores these issues further as it tells us of Peter. Who is given a vision that repeats the same images three times in succession. Peter does not at first understand what he has seen.

11He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13Then he heard a voice saying, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat." 14But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean." 15The voice said to him again, a second time, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." 16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

We read as well that “Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen.”

And many Christians to this day do not rightly understand this vision either.

Many people think this is a vision about how Peter was liberated from Jewish kosher laws—that the Lord is telling him, “Peter, nice Jewish boy. I’ve just changed the rules! Have a ham sandwich! Enjoy!”

I won’t ask how many of you think this is vision about what Peter ought to eat. But, as we find out later, that’s not what the vision is about at all! In common with just about every other vision in the Bible, the vision comes first, and the interpretation comes later. Peter goes through a process of coming to understand, and doesn’t discover fully what the vision is about until he gets to the home of Cornelius three days later. During the three days between his vision and his arrival at Cornelius’ house he was thinking about the vision. We don’t know when the interpretation fell into place for him, but probably it was in stages, and finalized at Cornelius' house.

As a faithful Jew, all of his life Peter had thought of Gentiles as categorically idol-worshippers, ritually unclean. Off-limits untouchables. Now God has taught him differently. That’s why Peter says “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” So the vision wasn’t about food at all—it was about people.

My second big question then for all of us is this: ∫Please don’t say, “Well, no one really Rabbi! I love everyone and am comfortable with everyone!” I see. You’re comfortable with homosexuals. Transsexuals. Cross-dressers. Undocumented aliens. Muslims. Satanists. Abortion providers. Democrats.

I hope I have demonstrated here that ALL of us have groups that are categorically out of bounds, permanent untouchables. Now it is not that God has no standards. But he is much more quick to change people’s untouchable status than we are. We are the ones who find it almost impossible to believe that such people can be reached, changed, and loved by God. For us, such people are permanently “other.”

We ought not to underestimate the extraordinary worldview change that Peter went through in those three days. It was a revolution: a spiritual and ideological earthquake. But the Holy Spirit reached him and got through to him so that he could say these revolutionary words, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” What a remarkable change. What a revolution. What an earthquake. What a great day.

Hear that fantastic text once more.

God shows NO partiality, but in EVERY nation ANYONE who fears him and does what is right is ACCEPTABLE to him. Muslim Iranians Lord? Yes. Militant Iraquis Lord? Yes. Palestinians Lord? Yes. Israeli Jews, Lord? Yes. Democrats Lord? Lord?

This doesn’t mean that the gospel is superfluous by the way. This is not a story about unbounded pluralism. Remember, God sent Peter to Cornelius to preach the gospel to him, to his household and to his friends. But it DOES mean that we all have boundaries within us that are not the same as God’s. So my third big question is this: Could it be that there are people He is willing to accept whom you are not yet ready for?

I am reminded of the story of Albert B. Simpson, a Canadian born Presbyterian Minister who was called to a posh Manhattan Church in the second half of the 19th century. He had a restless evangelistic spirit, and took to going down to the docks and preaching to the Italian immigrants there. When some of these began to embrace the gospel he was preaching, Simpson wanted to bring them back to the Church. The elders told him that he was welcome to have some sort of afternoon service for the immigrants, but that they were not welcome in the morning service with the proper members of this church. Simpson took that as his cue to leave, and left to eventually found the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

What are the lessons for us here?

The first lesson is the extraordinary love of God—a love that reaches out even to those considered by others or even themselves to be untouchable and unlovable. This story speaks of a love that seeks us out and will not let us go.

The second lesson is that we all likely still have much to learn about God and his ways, and the heights, the depths, the length, the breadth of his sovereign love. Peter had been an Apostle for years when this story takes place, yet it was only in this context of his encounter with Cornelius years after Pentecost that he learned that he should not call any person profane or unclean, and that “God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him’” Some of us may think we know God and his ways very well: but we all still have much growing to do and must learn to be humble about what we know of who God really is and eager and receptive to learning more.

The third lesson is this one: it is time to return the favor.

I speak to you as a Jew. At one time all religious Jews, including the Apostles of Jesus, thought that Gentiles were categorically unclean, and more likely untouchable idolaters if anything. Then came this Pentecost for the Gentiles—when Cornelius became the first of many millions of non- Jews who would be filled with the Spirit and immersed in the waters of holy baptism. Now the shoe is on the other foot. Once it was the pious Cornelius who had a reputation in heaven, whose gifts and prayers had ascended as a memorial offering before God. Now it is time for the Church to return the favor—to recognize that there are religious Jews, myriads of them throughout history, like Cornelius, known by name in heaven, whose prayers and gifts to the poor have ascended as a memorial offering before God. It is good right and proper to show such people what the Angel showed Cornelius: respect. And it is always time to do as Peter did, to share the gospel with them, but always respectfully, recognizing that “God shows NO partiality, but in EVERY nation ANYONE who fears him and does what is right is ACCEPTABLE to him.” Treat pious Jews as acceptable to God, and they just might treat as acceptable the gospel that comes from your lips as Cornelius did from Peter.

The key to deeply learning all these lessons is this. It is not a doctrine. Not a teaching. It is the Being of God. Ultimately our greatest hope, our only hope is who God truly is. As God told Moses, He is “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and compassionate, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Our only hope is to be fully embraced by a love that will not let you go, fully accepted, fully affirmed, fully welcomed . . .and for once our life, really safe.

When you truly know Him this way, you will realize without a problem, without a stretch, and without a doubt that his love is big enough for just about everybody—even your own personal untouchables.

The Lord says: Even Maxine Waters. Even George Bush. Even Barbara Boxer. Even Donald Rumsfeld. And maybe even Democrats.