Focusing on God’s instructions in the Torah is an undeniable part of not only the Messianic lifestyle, but also the Messianic experience. Ever since the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon, the public reading of the Torah to instruct God’s people on what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior has been a regular practice (Nehemiah 7:73-8:12). This is something that is also witnessed in the Apostolic Scriptures (Luke 4:16-17; Acts 13:15) and continues in the traditions of today’s Jewish Synagogue. The repetition of hearing Moses’ Teaching is important for men and women of faith, particularly in understanding the fuller meaning of “For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44). The statutes and commandments of the Torah are to make God’s people different from the rest of the world, possessing qualities and wisdom that attract outsiders to Him (Deuteronomy 4:6).
The Messianic community has grown significantly in the past ten years (1999-2008) via the great interest in evangelical Christians embracing their Hebraic Roots. Such people know that their (exclusive) examination of the New Testament Scriptures while in Church has been incomplete without a foundational basis in the Torah and Tanach. While the Holy Spirit has first convicted such individuals about the need to consider the importance of things like the seventh-day Sabbath/Shabbat, the appointed times or moedim, and the kosher dietary laws—things that the Messianic movement considers to be prime elements of Torah observance—Torah observance is obviously much more than these three aspects of one’s faith practice. A great deal of Torah observance includes one’s ethics and morality, and how a person interacts with others demonstrating God’s kindness and love (Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28; cf. Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).
The ruling of the Jerusalem Council was that after the new non-Jewish Believers would “abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:20), that they would understand that “Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21). These were four areas of instruction with a significant Torah background, and the need for these former pagans—now having received salvation in Yeshua—to be trained in the essentials of God’s Word could not be more overstated. Most of today’s Christian commentators on the New Testament are clearly aware of the fact that these non-Jewish Believers would have had to have been somewhat familiar with the story of Ancient Israel in the Old Testament for the Apostles’ teachings and epistles to have made any sense. For example, the Apostle Paul appeals to the Exodus in telling the Corinthians, “our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1).
Many non-Jewish Believers in today’s Messianic community do not need the same kind of instruction in the Torah and Tanach that the first non-Jewish Believers had, who came out of First Century paganism and were often totally ignorant of the God of Israel. Most of these people in the Messianic movement today received a basic understanding of the stories and history of Ancient Israel from Sunday school, even though such basic understanding can certainly be expanded upon and more thoroughly explored. This is being accomplished quite well by Messianics following the Jewish tradition of reading the weekly Torah portion, and reading through the Torah on either an annual or triennial cycle (whichever best fits the local congregation’s needs).
When the Torah is examined in this way, though, and not just surveyed for people, places, and events—it becomes quite clear that Torah observance is much more than just Shabbat, the festivals, and kosher. A great number of ethical and moral issues/commandments become significantly conscious to the Torah reader. Likewise, a person has to encounter a world going not only back some 3,300 years to the time of the Exodus, but multiplied millennia to the Creation of the cosmos itself. The questions and the controversies that the first five books of the Bible present to us, not just as students of God’s Word, but specifically as Messianic Believers—are quite significant. Many people do not know what to do when the social norms of the ancient period are different than those of today, and are often at a loss when reading the Torah. Not infrequently, such issues are just avoided or outright ignored in Messianic Torah study.
Only diligent discipleship and study can adequately address all of the issues that the Torah presents to a person, pertaining to what such issues meant against their ancient context and what they mean for modern people today. It is very good that today’s Messianics have submitted themselves to the instructions of God’s Torah, and people have become familiarized, or even re-familiarized, with its foundational accounts and histories. Yet, as the Messianic movement prepares to enter into a new chapter in both its spiritual and theological development, it is clear that there is much in the Torah that still needs to be explored by us. Ironically enough, these are the areas of the Pentateuch that both Jewish and Christian Bible scholarship have largely resolved to one degree or another. Today’s Messianic community need not find itself (unnecessarily) lagging behind in these areas, as having a better handle on them will help us in both our Biblical Studies and in understanding the mission that the Lord has laid out for us—to be a kingdom of priests and a light that can make a difference in the world (Exodus 19:5-6; Isaiah 42:6)!
This analysis of frequently avoided issues that Messianics encounter in the Torah by no means can be the “end-all” of our examination of the Torah. But this analysis does intend to provoke some important questions. These questions should be a part of future Messianic discussions and our engagement as a faith community in larger sectors of conversation on the Scriptures. I do intend to ask some questions regarding the Torah of today’s Messianics that, at least on the whole, our movement is largely unprepared to consider (in 2008). These are questions that any reader of the Biblical text will encounter, they are by no means hidden, and they are by no means inappropriate as both the Synagogue and the Church have already had to consider them. So certainly, as a movement that has its spiritual and theological origins in both of these institutions, a critical part of our maturation process is for us to consider them as well.