Messianic Believers and Religious Symbols

Throughout much of human history, and certainly present within our modern era, religious groups have been known by religious symbols. If any of us think in terms of words like Judaism, Christianity, or Islam—we almost immediately conjure up images of a Star of David, the cross, and the crescent moon. Today’s broad Messianic community, which looks to its shared Jewish and Christian heritage, certainly has some kind of association with common Jewish symbols such as the menorah or Star of David, as well as the Christian cross and fish. Various religious symbols and ritual objects, some of which are specified to be used in Scripture, others of which are derived from Scripture, and some which derive from tradition—are all encountered in some form or fashion across the Messianic movement. Some people display specific symbols in their home, some people wear religious jewelry, and other people make use of some specific, tactile objects, in their spiritual experience.

A huge issue, surrounding the main religious symbols present in both Judaism and Christianity, involves one’s approach to the Second Commandment: “You shall not make yourself a carved image nor any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth” (Exodus 20:4, ATS). Prohibitions are issued surrounding pesel v’kol-temunah, “no carved likeness and no image” (Alter), “a carved-image or any figure” (Fox), or “any graven image, or any likeness” (KJV). The God of Israel decrees, “You shall not worship them or serve them” (Exodus 20:5), lo-tish’tachveh l’hem v’lo ta’av’deim.

Images intended for veneration, representing terrestrial or extra-terrestrial beings or forces—whether they are made of precious metals, stone, wood, or some other object—are forbidden. A major reason for this, would not only be to counter how human beings might think that they can control an image or object of their mortal making, somehow manipulating a supernatural being or force—but ultimately thinking that a human man or woman is superior to such a supernatural being or force. Even with some recognition that the God of Israel is the One True God, creating an image of Him to venerate, very much trivializes His own declaration, “Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last, and there is no God besides Me’” (Isaiah 44:6; cf. Revelation 1:17). To try to reduce an Eternal God to an image of human craftsmanship, can very much cause people to actually think of Him in lesser terms than their own limited, mortal selves.

That not all three-dimensional images or sculptures are prohibited, and may be employed for other uses, is seen in how the Ark of the Covenant was to have two cherubim placed above its mercy seat: “You shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat” (Exodus 25:18). In the Tanach, these keruvim angels “stand sentinel over the way to the tree of life in Eden (Gen. 3:24; cf. Ezek. 28:14, 16) and also flank or support the throne of God (Pss. 80:1; 99:1; Isa. 37:16). Wooden images of them, overlaid with gold, and with wings outspread, were set over the ark of the covenant (Exod. 25:18-20; 37:6-9; Num. 7:89; I Sam. 4:4; I Kings 6:23-28; 8:6-7)” (IDB). The cherubim, though, are of a unique category, given their place in the Scriptures. A three-dimensional sculpturing of the cherubim, while being used in worship of God in the Tabernacle and Temple, were not themselves to be worshipped.

There are images that have been employed by God’s people, not for veneration, but for identification. Religious symbols for identification and association of persons with a faith tradition—while always in danger of being venerated inappropriately—cannot be said as being quantitatively forbidden in principle. It has to be recognized, though, that while common Jewish symbols like the Star of David, or the basic Christian image like the cross, have been used in many different forms by both the Jewish Synagogue and Christian Church for some kind of identification as God’s own—they have also been used by many in the occult. Yet, various occultic uses of a six-pointed Star of David or a cross of some shape, does not automatically provide a reason for it to never be used at any time; a more fair-minded background analysis of these symbols is required. One’s approach regarding religious symbols can get out of control very quickly, lest all of a sudden we stop using all written language, because every letter of every human alphabet has at some times been used for perverted intentions—and written language has certainly been used in many ungodly and profane ways!

Today’s Messianic movement uses religious symbols, with congregations and ministries using mostly Jewish, but as well as some Christian, signs, to associate with their mission and purpose. Some of these religious symbols provoke positive, but some provoke negative, reactions from people. We all need a fair-minded look at some of these symbols, seeing what a variety of mainline Jewish and Christian sources have actually said, before listening to some of the misinformation that can so widely circulate, often branding common symbols like the Star of David or cross as being “utterly pagan,” and needing to be completely removed and never spoken of again.

This chapter offers summaries of the major object symbols present in traditional Jewish practice: the mezuzah, tefillin or phylacteries, and tzitzits or fringes/tassels. More common Jewish symbols, which evoke religious, national, and political associations with past Jewish history and the present State of Israel, are the menorah and Star of David. The common Christian symbols such as the cross and the fish, while not frequently employed in the open decor of today’s Messianic movement, are still things that we will all encounter. A proper approach, toward all of these religious symbols, is needed by today’s Messianic Believers. Just like issues of personal dress and grooming, the subject matter of religious symbols can stir a degree of tension among us—and one which definitely needs to be lessened!

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reproduced from Torah In the Balance, Volume II

The views expressed and practices witnessed, regarding the place of God’s Torah in the life of contemporary Messianic Believers, are more likely to cause tension for far too many people—than facilitate any sense of spiritual fulfillment, much less relief. There is little doubting the fact that as a widely mixed group of people, from both Jewish and Christian backgrounds, that each man and woman within the Messianic community brings both positive and negative things into the assembly. When it comes to the issue of Torah observance, the spectrum of views and practices has been too often polarized between an Orthodox Jewish, hyper-traditional style—and some anti-traditional, quasi-Karaite style. Much of this has come about because there is an entire array of issues, which need some preliminary handling, and which has yet to receive it.

Torah In the Balance, Volume II is a book which recognizes that the Torah does regulate many physical actions to be performed by God’s people. Faith in the Lord is hardly just a series of abstract mental beliefs or doctrines; it is also something which is to be demonstrated in concrete works. But when we consider the importance of external works as a manifestation of our trust in Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ), what is some of the variance seen in on-the-ground Messianic settings? How do people keep the seventh-day Sabbath/Shabbat, eat kosher, or sanctify the appointed times? What about our physical dress and appearance? What about issues like circumcision or water immersion (baptism)? What about various religious symbols like the cross or Star of David? Even when Messianic people have been theologically convinced that Moses’ Teaching remains valid instruction for God’s people today, there is going to be variance, and even internal disagreement, about how it is to be implemented for those living in the Twenty-First Century.

This publication has been long anticipated in addressing some of the finer-issues of Torah observance witnessed within the Messianic movement. It takes into consideration the theological and spiritual developments of the 2000s-2010s to be sure, but more importantly tries to present the necessary third way which must emerge for our Torah observance. This is crucial, as we steadily develop into a force of holiness and righteousness in the world, and strive to commit ourselves to further obedience.

364 pages