In a separate post, I discussed the clear, firm, and repeated teaching of the New Testament that the Mosaic law has accomplished its purpose, having been fulfilled in Christ, and recognizing that righteousness and salvation come through faith in Jesus Christ, we say with the apostles and the Holy Spirit that the burden of the law has been lifted. Christians are not called to adhere to the dictates of Torah. Quite the opposite – the New Testament, particularly Paul, speaks long and loud against those who would seek to impose the law on gentile believers. Jewish believers are not forbidden from participating in the law, but they are warned against making it a requirement of the faith.
Fast forward to our day. There is a small but growing movement that emphasizes Messianic (Jewish/Torah) forms of Christianity. Ordinarily, Messianic Christianity would refer to Jews who convert to Christianity, worshiping Jesus as the promised Messiah. These Jews, like those of Jesus’ day, might continue in many of the practices of the law but recognize that Jesus is the source of righteousness and salvation. What is peculiar about this growing movement is that its composition is primarily gentiles who advocate a return to law.
Some in the movement believe the law is not necessary for Christians, but nonetheless aids in our pursuit of holiness. Others argue that Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:18 make it clear that the law remains a mandate for all believers. They will acknowledge that some aspects have changed, such as the sacrifices, but nonetheless believe that Christians who do not uphold even the ritual aspects of the law are guilty of sinning against God.
There is no central organizing authority behind this movement, and as far as I know there are no powerful or popular national leaders or preachers. There are plenty of websites, a few conferences, lots of preachers, but none that might be called central figures or events. It is entirely a grass roots movement, though there are some organizational bodies that help people connect. One such body is located within the Southern Baptist Convention: the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship. Browsing through their list of affiliated congregations makes it apparent that many if not most of these are gentile believers returning to the law.
I was introduced to this movement a few years ago while pastoring in Birmingham, AL. A local Messianic group was looking for a place to meet and asked to use our church building for Saturday evening worship. Not being terribly familiar with the movement but being comfortable with the idea of Messianic congregations, we agreed to grant them permission. I sat in on the few occasions that they met with us and I was surprised to see a group clearly made up of gentiles who were returning to the law. Their service would not likely be recognizable to most observant Jews, but it was clear that they were attempting to incorporate ritual elements of the law and Jewish practice, from head coverings and prayer shawls to candle lightings to blowing the shofar and so forth. Since then I have heard of more and more Messianic congregations and have family members deeply involved in the movement. In some cases, established churches have switched to Messianic observances but most groups I’m familiar with are new, independent works without any connection to existing churches.
Practices range from the strange to the downright bizarre. There is often a heavy emphasis on Hebraic forms of expression. For instance, the statement of faith for Beth Yeshua HaMashiach Messianic Jewish Synagogue opens with “We believe that God is One, Echad not Yachid. Not that He is one person, but that He is One G-dhead, family of three; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Abba, Ben and Ruach HaKodesh.” Jesus is usually called Yeshua; G-d or L-rd or YHVH instead of God; Yisrael for Israel, etc. Much emphasis goes to the Torah and Torah observance. Many of these congregations are pentecostal and include dance in their services. Church leaders are often called rabbi rather than pastor.
None of these practices are necessarily wrong in and of themselves (though at best they are ill advised) but they do point to a problem at the heart of this movement: this sense that Christians need to embrace Jewish methods of worship and expression – this despite the fact that most of the methods and practices of these congregations bear very little resemblance to Judaism. There is a sense that they have found the path to a closer walk with God. As expressed by one congregation: “Our hearts desire is to praise and worship the Father in the style that His Son Yeshua, praised and worshipped Him. The Jewish style of Praise and Worship is richer beyond what most of us ever experience. Its’ [sic] traditions, hymns and liturgy brings us to an understanding of who we are and what G-d expects of us.” Some go further than this, teaching that Jewish observance is not just richer, but essential. 119 Ministries is a group that exists to call believers to the necessary observance of the law, claiming that all of God’s requirements are still in force. Bizarre arguments are often raised to claim that passages such as Galatians, Acts 10, Romans 7, etc, do not move us from the law but call for believers to observe the law.
Speaking of bizarre, the interest in Hebrew expressions has led to various translations and alterations of the Bible. One example popular in the movement is the Halleluyah Scriptures, also known as the Restored Paleo Hebrew Name Scriptures. The website acknowledges that there are several other Messianic versions that have “the Name of the Creator restored to It’s [sic] rightful position [but] the majority have used the modern Hebrew…” Evidently, this version is superior because it uses the Paleo-Hebrew form of Yahweh rather than the modern Hebrew script. This particular version has changed a number of words usually found throughout the Bible, deeming those words (such as ‘holy’) to be of pagan origin and concluding that “our Creator is so qodesh that it would be blasphemous to use words derived from pagan deities in an attempt to honor Him.” As their sample from Matthew demonstrates, the end result is at best quite unusual if not somewhat unreadable. Not to be outdone, the Hebraic Roots Version boasts that they have “the first and only New Testament to be translated from Aramaic and Hebrew manuscripts.” Introducing the rather unusual word HalleluYahweh, the House of Yahweh offers their “most accurate and authentic translation of the Bible ever published”. If none of these versions suit you, don’t worry: there are plenty of others to choose from.
Getting back to Messianic congregations, these mostly gentile believers are calling for a return to Torah observance and see it either as an aid or as a necessary part of our walk with God. Setting aside the fact that many of their practices bear little or no resemblance to Old Testament era, New Testament era, or modern Jewish practices, my concern is with their belief that observance of the Mosaic law is still of value to Christians.
We have already seen the clear and repeated teaching of the New Testament that the Mosaic law has accomplished its purpose. It is not abolished or cast in the trash, it is fulfilled. It is not discarded, it is finished. If this were a filing system where we had three trays, Discard, Current, and Completed, then Jesus’ actions had the effect of moving the Mosaic law from Current to Completed. We can and should speak of God’s commands and the requirements of believers to follow his commands and ways, but these commands are not found in the context of Mosaic law but in Spirit leadership. The Spirit – not the law – leads us in the things of God.
One danger from these modern Judaizers is in replacing the work of the Spirit with the work of the law. Where God intends us to walk by the Spirit in the things of God, the Messianic movement would have us return to the rituals of the Mosaic law for guidance. This does not simply misunderstand the New Testament teaching on the law, it undermines a great deal of what Jesus has done with his body the church. Paul’s concern with the Galatians was legitimate and it applies to today’s movements – they move the source of their sanctification from the work of the Spirit to their obedience of the law. To be holy, follow the law. To grow in Christ, follow the law. To be right with God, follow the law. The Spirit’s work, they might say, is to help us follow the law. This in itself borders on blasphemy since the Spirit does not aid us in the law but replaces the law as the guiding principle for our lives (see what we noted in the previous post – Paul’s contrast of law and Spirit in Galatians 5:18 and the surrounding context).
We call Christians to a radical obedience to the Spirit of God – an obedience empowered by the same Spirit who guides our walk. We recognize that the Mosaic law served a significant purpose and function in God’s plan of redemption. It continues to serve a purpose insofar as it is still capable of bringing condemnation to those outside of Christ. Beyond that, the purpose of the law has been completely fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Jesus has satisfied all righteousness. We call believers not to the rituals of the Old Testament but to the freedom of the Spirit. We have been set free from sin, set free from our failure to perfectly obey God, set free from the many requirements and peculiarities of the law. Jesus did not fulfill the law for us only to have us return to the law. It is finished. It is completed. The veil is torn. In Jesus we have freedom and life. Do not return to the yoke of slavery, the bondage of the law.