Messianic Apologetics

Addressing the Theological and Spiritual Issues of the Broad Messianic Movement

“The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, ‘Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?’ And He said to them, ‘Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: “THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN” [Isaiah 29:13, LXX]. Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.’ He was also saying to them, ‘You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, “HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER” [Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16]; and, “HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER, IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH” [Exodus 21:17]; but you say, “If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),” you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.’ After He called the crowd to Him again, He began saying to them, ‘Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.’ When he had left the crowd and entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. And He said to them, ‘Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?’ (Thus He declared all foods clean.) And He was saying, ‘That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man’” (NASU).

“Also I gave them My sabbaths to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them. But the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness. They did not walk in My statutes and they rejected My ordinances, by which, if a man observes them, he will live; and My sabbaths they greatly profaned. Then I resolved to pour out My wrath on them in the wilderness, to annihilate them. But I acted for the sake of My name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, before whose sight I had brought them out. Also I swore to them in the wilderness that I would not bring them into the land which I had given them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands, because they rejected My ordinances, and as for My statutes, they did not walk in them; they even profaned My sabbaths, for their heart continually went after their idols. Yet My eye spared them rather than destroying them, and I did not cause their annihilation in the wilderness. I said to their children in the wilderness, ‘Do not walk in the statutes of your fathers or keep their ordinances or defile yourselves with their idols. I am the LORD your God; walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances and observe them. Sanctify My sabbaths; and they shall be a sign between Me and you, that you may know that I am the LORD your God.’ But the children rebelled against Me; they did not walk in My statutes, nor were they careful to observe My ordinances, by which, if a man observes them, he will live; they profaned My sabbaths. So I resolved to pour out My wrath on them, to accomplish My anger against them in the wilderness. But I withdrew My hand and acted for the sake of My name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations in whose sight I had brought them out. Also I swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them among the lands, because they had not observed My ordinances, but had rejected My statutes and had profaned My sabbaths, and their eyes were on the idols of their fathers. I also gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live; and I pronounced them unclean because of their gifts, in that they caused all their firstborn to pass through the fire so that I might make them desolate, in order that they might know that I am the LORD’” (NASU).

“Bring your worthless offerings no longer, incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them” (NASU).

“Thus says the Lord GOD, ‘The gate of the inner court facing east shall be shut the six working days; but it shall be opened on the sabbath day and opened on the day of the new moon. The prince shall enter by way of the porch of the gate from outside and stand by the post of the gate. Then the priests shall provide his burnt offering and his peace offerings, and he shall worship at the threshold of the gate and then go out; but the gate shall not be shut until the evening. The people of the land shall also worship at the doorway of that gate before the LORD on the sabbaths and on the new moons. The burnt offering which the prince shall offer to the LORD on the sabbath day shall be six lambs without blemish and a ram without blemish…When the prince provides a freewill offering, a burnt offering, or peace offerings as a freewill offering to the LORD, the gate facing east shall be opened for him. And he shall provide his burnt offering and his peace offerings as he does on the sabbath day. Then he shall go out, and the gate shall be shut after he goes out” (NASU).

There is a great deal of significance attached to this day in Jewish theology, as it is most often emphasized as a time when God looks down from Heaven and reconsiders where He stands with people. It is a time where we are to rejoice and celebrate, remembering His goodness to us, but also begin a sober examination of our humanity, and consider faults and sins that must be rectified.

The Day of Atonement for Messianics can equally be a challenge, because of a possible emphasis on celebration at Yom Teruah/Rosh HaShanah, instead of a serious attitude and call to reflection from the sounding of the shofar. Many Messianics likewise have difficulty reverently focusing on their relationship with the Lord, and in considering where they need to improve in their spiritual walk. For us, while recognizing that our ultimate forgiveness is indeed found in Yeshua, we still need to know that we are humans with a fallen sin nature, and that we need the Lord to empower us for good works. We need to be reminded that without Him, we are nothing, and we need to intercede for the salvation of others.

Anyone who enters into Pauline theological studies today will easily encounter the fact that there are scholars and exegetes who think that the term “works of law” or ergōn nomou—appearing first in Galatians (2:16[3x]; 3:2, 5, 10), and then appearing again in Romans (3:20, 28)—actually does designate something other than “works/deeds/actions required by the Mosaic Law,” or at least something a bit more specific than just “observing the law” (NIV) in general. These proposals, though, have been met with a great deal of criticism, and even some hostility, by those of particular theological traditions. Alternatives to the customary meaning of “works of law” have been proposed more frequently, as New Testament theologians, over the past fifty years or so, have had greater access to ancient Jewish literature and resources, and this information has had to be considered in their exegesis.

Today’s Messianic movement is in a very precarious situation. On the one hand, some good things are happening as many Jewish people are coming to faith in Messiah Yeshua, and Christians are expressing a love for Israel and embracing their Hebraic Roots. Our numbers are getting larger and larger—with many not having to really wonder what “Messianic” is any more. Many people know that when you call yourself “Messianic” you are either a Jewish Believer in Yeshua, or a non-Jewish Believer in Yeshua who has some kind of strong connection to Israel.

On the other hand, though, there are some not so good things happening today in the Messianic movement. The theology of the Messianic community and its understanding of the Bible have largely not been able to keep up with its growth. On the whole, many of the answers that we have to give in response to external criticisms of our convictions have not been very deep. They have sometimes not been examined very well from the Scriptures, and our engagement with theological discussions—in some cases going back several centuries—is often just not there. We have a great deal of progress that we must make in the coming years as a more coherent and scholastically-minded Messianic theology begins to come forward.

What needs to be done to secure a stable and secure future for today’s emerging Messianic movement? How can we be people who make a positive difference in the fallen world in which we live?

This further study, of what “under the Law” really means, will consider some of the strengths and weaknesses today’s Messianic Believers have, especially when a Christian family member or friend exclaims “We’re not under the Law!” Not only will this analysis provide some more detailed answers to those who are skeptical of a Messianic’s Torah obedience, but it is engaged with contemporary thought and opinion surrounding the terminology “under the Law,” and why “under the Law” meaning “obedient to the Torah of Moses” is a poor conclusion.

Since the early 2000s, various parts of the broad Messianic community have been bombarded with an array of issues and teachings that have been anything but good. These things have challenged our collective understanding of who Messiah Yeshua is, the recorded history of the First Century, hermeneutics and how we are to understand the Bible, and indeed the very authority of the Scriptures themselves. Since such a wave of “teachings” has hit, and the consequent damage that they have caused, many of us have had to reevaluate and reconsider some things that we have picked up in our days in the Messianic movement. With some issues, we have had to return to previous beliefs and practices, discarding things that were passing themselves off as “true,” but we discovered were not. With other things, we have had to fine-tune our theology and make sure that it is in fuller alignment with Scripture, eliminate any unsound elements that may have been allowed to creep in, and pull the reigns back a considerable bit.

While this has been especially true of some fringe teachings and beliefs that we may have all gotten wind of, one issue that needs to be truly cross-examined by many people is the Two-House teaching. I have always believed that we must approach the subject matter of the reunification of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel from the Biblical text and from what should be read as unfulfilled prophecies. One must not make unsubstantiated claims about the descendants of the exiled Northern Kingdom, nor can one ignore the Jewish expectations of Israel’s restoration. We have to understand that the message of Israel’s restoration is ultimately the message of God’s Kingdom coming to Earth—and Israel just happens to be the vehicle that God is going to use to accomplish it. It is something that truly welcomes all human beings who look to Him for deliverance and salvation!

It is necessary to cross-examine and revisit various elements of the Two-House teaching. There are some important Bible passages that advocates of the Two-House teaching have brought to the attention of today’s Messianic Believers. Yet, as with many theological issues which have to be frequently fine-tuned, we will be examining some aspects of the Two-House teaching that are assumed to be true by many proponents and adherents of it, but Biblically and historically are overstated, or even unsustainable.

Today’s broad Messianic movement does adhere to some form of post-resurrection era validity to the Torah of Moses. At the very least, today’s Messianic people believe that the weekly Torah portions should be read and contemplated, as we let its accounts inform our understanding of how God works in history, and how we need the salvation of Yeshua the Messiah. By virtue of holding its main worship services on Shabbat or the seventh-day Sabbath, observing holidays and festivals not adhered to by most of today’s Messiah followers, and being concerned about clean and unclean meats—today’s Messianic people do inevitably have some conflict with a great deal of contemporary Christian thought and theology, which teaches that the Torah or Law of Moses has been abolished.

The festival of Sukkot or Tabernacles (also commonly called Booths) begins on 15 Tishri and is intended to commemorate the time that the Ancient Israelites spent in the wilderness after the Exodus. Images of the post-Exodus period, God wanting Israel to remember what happened in the desert, and perhaps most importantly the need for His people to physically be reminded of His desire to commune with them, are all themes that are seen throughout one’s observance. The Feast of Tabernacles was considered to be so important in the Torah, that God gave it the distinction of being one of the three times of ingathering, along with Passover and Shavuot (Leviticus 23:39-43).

Shavuot[1] is one of three pilgrimage festivals that is commanded in the Torah (Exodus 23:14-17; Deuteronomy 16:16). In Hebrew, its name means “weeks,” derived from the command in Deuteronomy 16:19, “You shall count seven weeks for yourself; you shall begin to count seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the standing grain.” Many Christians know Shavuot from its Greek-derived name “Pentecost,” as Pentēkostē means “fiftieth,” indicative of the fifty days that are to be counted between Passover and this time.

What kind of issues present themselves when the Passover season arrives? Would you believe that there are some people in the Messianic community today who do not believe that the Last Supper was a real, or even a kind-of, seder meal? How many of you have been engulfed in the argument that we need to do exactly what Yeshua did, and not any “traditions of men,” making Passover a bit unexciting? While there are longstanding disagreements on halachah between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewish traditions on what is kosher for Passover, think about some of the new Messianic disagreements that have arisen on what actually took place in those days leading up to Yeshua’s betrayal and execution. How long is three days and three nights? Was the Messiah really crucified, or put to death another away? And this is only a short list of what often gets discussed…

If there is any area where today’s Messianic movement tends to absolutely excel, it is with integrating a wide selection of the mainline Jewish traditions and customs for observing the Sabbath. Regardless of their background before coming to Messiah faith, religious or secular, today’s Messianic Jews tend to remember Shabbat with the common elements of lighting candles, breaking challah, drinking wine, and attending synagogue services with traditional liturgy and Torah readings. Non-Jewish Believers who have been led by the Lord into the Messianic movement, seeking to embrace more of the Hebraic and Jewish Roots of their faith, have also taken a hold of Shabbat, the opportunity for rest it offers to the people of God, and many of the significant traditions that can make the Sabbath a very holy and sanctified time.

How the Messianic community is to properly keep Shabbat, or any Biblical commandment for that matter, is a mystery for many. There are many issues and questions that have to be weighed and taken into consideration when establishing a proper halachic orthopraxy for oneself, one’s congregation, and the movement as a whole. In the Jewish community, whether you are Orthodox or Conservative, keeping the seventh-day Sabbath is an important sign of who you are as a Jew. It is the sign that God gave the people of Israel from Mount Sinai to distinguish them from the world.

When many of us think about some of the most significant theological debates of the past three or five decades, we are probably immediately drawn into thinking about conservatives and liberals sparring over the reliability of the Holy Scriptures, creationists and evolutionists fighting about the origins of humankind, Scripturalists and cultists warring over the Divinity of Yeshua, and most recently the controversy that has been rising up over homosexuality and gay marriage. How many of us are consciously aware that there has been a debate ensuing among evangelical Christians, and various others, for over three decades surrounding the Sabbath?