Continuing my personal story of moving from a ‘normal, nondenominational’ Christianity to something called Messianic Judaism. Previous episodes recounted my Christian upbringing, and my near shipwreck. The latest showed the dilemma that paved the way and my discovery of the joys and pitfalls of Messianic Judaism.
And now, the inconclusion of my story (because of course, I’m still alive)…
Enlisting in Insanity
So brother Chris took the easier and wiser choice of joining the Air Force, and I took the jar-headed route of joining the Marines—probably in pursuit of that long sought feeling of respect. Ironically, in the Marines I learned the respect of the world was usually worthless, from people who really had no idea what is going on. Marines (or any branch) may do some good things and have truly heroic people in them, but any organization that does not have root in God will do its best to destroy your faith.
My years in the Corps were dark. Most severely because I actually tried to be a Marine in the Marines, instead of trying to be God’s servant in the Marines. I trust God to redeem it, but I regret joining the Marines. I went in emotionally depressed, lonely, and then I surrounded myself for 4 years with people who had no interest in God, and I hadn’t the prayer life to realize I was in a mission field instead of some twisted version of a career path. The respect I thought I wanted, I found poison to what was really important. I have much regret for the sins of those days. No doubt the conscious abandoning of fellowship, neglect of scripture and prayer aided my downfall.
But God did redeem it. Before I deployed, I decided “I had better” go to some kind of church, I was feeling the thirst for worship and community. Up until this point, I just didn’t care. Having a bad taste for things Messianic—
—I should clarify that Messianic doesn’t mean just one thing, just as Christian encompasses Baptists and Presbyterians. For some, Messianic means basically Christianity with Jewish dress-up: meet on Sabbath, use the word chutzpah, and try not to bring pork chops to fellowship meals, but the Torah is only really important for reaching Jews, and if you’re a gentile you probably shouldn’t keep it, at all. This includes the MJAA and UMJA as far as I understand their positions. However, there is a growing body of Messianics who use the term (or Hebraic Roots) to mean actually wanting to practice all areas of life according to Torah in light of Yeshua’s Messiahship. That is the way I use Messianic.—
—Having that bad taste for that other version of Messianic, I decided that I would look for ‘just a church.’ And specifically did not look for Messianic, or anything like it. So I found a Baptist church, where I learned that what I had always called ‘non-denominational’ was in fact Baptist. Then again, since every church regardless of its label seemed to teach the same thing, I’d be tempted to believe all the denominational ones were Baptist, too. And Calvinist, if you’re still tracking the labels =)
So I went, and there were some people I enjoyed quite a bit, and the Baptists weird hierarchy of drinking and dancing being so high on the list didn’t bother me too much. But, the main sermon series, was a study through Romans . . . oh, boy . . . that stirred my soul too, but in a different way.
Even though Jack had taught us to study for ourselves, for most of the years after, I basically studied to prove what I already believed. I could show handily how obedience was not opposed to grace, it was the point of grace. I could show how common anti-torah proofs from Paul were in fact not. I suppose those were important, like multiplication tables, but I believe I’d become stunted. Or perhaps, it was just time that God wanted more of me.
Christians Don’t Believe in the Law, And they don’t like it, either
So there I was, about twenty-four listening to the baptists go on and on from Romans about how the law was done away with, and how great it was that we weren’t under the law, and it began to dawn on me, they don’t like the law, they think the law is evil. They wouldn’t say it, after all staring in the face was Paul saying “the law is good, and the commandment pure and holy”. But, if you thought the law really was good, pure, and holy…why would you be so eager to get rid of it?
Up until then, I had looked at obedience to torah as a problem of interpretation. I could see it in scripture so when I found something in the Torah that seemed distasteful, I knew my understanding was in error. It was mostly a question of reason, to me. But, I saw then that most Christians, having been raised on anti-torah thinking, had a kind of visceral aversion to Torah. When they saw the villainous Pharisees wanting to stone the woman in John 8, to them that’s torah. Religious people complaining about healing on Sabbath, that’s torah.
They hadn’t spent years reading torah and discovering… Wait, God wants us to forgive all debts, every seven years? He expects us to provide refugees with food and shelter? God wants us to have compassion even on our animals? God wants us to make amends when we injure one another rather than punish? He wants us to have big parties? Enjoy even liquor? Good food? Meat?
The problem was most christians had no idea what the Torah says, and what they did know, they knew from a perspective of flesh, not from the perspective of why would the God of Jesus have commanded such and such?
And most Messianics haven’t helped, because they spend all their time telling Christians how pagan they are for Sunday, and Easter, and eating pig. We hadn’t shown that torah was so much bigger than those things. I hadn’t shown it. And in truth, looking back, I didn’t show it because I hadn’t gone deep enough to know it for myself.
Getting Off the Bench
I didn’t grasp this all, right then, but I went back to the barracks and started pounding out 90 pages, the seed of a study that would eventually become my book, Backwards.
It took a couple years for “The Case for Torah” to become Backwards. I got married to a beautiful dancing old-soul, Alisa. She’s kept me grounded, encouraged in the many storms we’ve faced, and motivated. There’s nothing like a woman in your life to make a man shoot for the impossible, and nothing like a woman who puts a man back on his feet when he’s missed the impossibe, or run face-first into it. Some of that rough and impossible, included the death of our firstborn son. These don’t seem terribly related to the development of my convictions, but I can’t imagine they were unrelated.
At the root of my book’s thesis were two perspectives on the subject of obedience to Torah. Firstly, I tried to acknowledge the emotional objections to law, but asked the reader to set aside their revulsion, and trust what should be obvious, that if the God who sent His only begotten into the world is so good…then the law He gave must also be good. Set aside, the emotions and let scriptures reshape them.
Two scriptures had come to form the backbone of my systematic theology: Isaiah 46:9-10, “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:”
What God is going to do, He announced in the beginning. This means that there shouldn’t be anything in the “New” that can’t be found in the “Old.”
Amo 3:7 “Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.”
Again, the same. Legitimate doctrine cannot abruptly appear. For example, I can make the case from the Old Testament alone that Yeshua would be the name of Mashiach. That He would be called God. That His mother’s name would be Miryam (for some reason the translators decided to change her name to Mary, much as they changed Jacob to James). That Miryam would be a virgin (without even relying on the prophecy in Isaiah). And this method of interpretation is obvious in the New Testament. How many times do the gospels say, “Thus it was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet . . . ”
In the earlier days of my life, I had seen scripture as kind of a soup of truth, full of random proverbs and spiritual truths, with a few unrelated stories thrown in, and you needed that guy (the pastor) with the decoder ring to put things in the right order. The reason that you got different denominations was because someone else had another ring that took the same verses, put them in a different order, and voila “Denominationalism!”
At the time I couldn’t have said that, but I’m giving you the distilled version.
But lately, I’d begun to see . . . wait, Joshua picks up where Deuteronomy ends. Judges where Joshua ends. . . You get into the New Testament and read the books of Paul and you start to catch names repeating in his salutations. There’s a story being told in the background. These weren’t random letters put in one book. They were part of a cohesive story. And the whole bible had to be seen as a cohesive story. So this is playing in my mind when I’m in that pew listening to the pastor talk about Romans and how bad the law was and how great it was to be out from under it—I’m thinking . . . why does he have to go to Paul to make this case? Why does everyone always go to Paul?
Paul is one writer, who didn’t even write the majority of the New Testament and isn’t the Messiah, and he’s the one apostle constantly having to deny false accusations about his teachings. The one apostle that is singled out by another apostle (Peter) as having “difficult” sayings . . . but everyone goes to Paul. Why can’t they make the case from the Old Testament?
That’s when I’d say, I entered the ministry. I don’t like that word, maybe service is better? Whatever you want to call it, I felt I had some talent inside me, and no right to bury it.
The basic premise of my book became this: You’re probably not a Mormon or a Muslim because you’d tell me that their teachings contradict scripture—even though they both ‘believe’ in Jesus, and at least the first one believes in the scriptures. Most, rightly assert that the Mormons and Muslims cannot reinterpret scripture to accommodate their newer revelation.
By the same assertion it is also untenable to accept the New Testament on its own authority.
In other words, if you want to say Yeshua is Messiah, you can’t start in the New Testament to prove it. You have to go to the Old—which by the way, is what the New Testament does. It references past, established, trusted revelation as authority for itself. The New Testament constantly points back to the Old for confirmation. But that doesn’t apply just to Messiah’s circumstantial identity. Case in point: Yeshua had to be born in Bethlehem, if He had not, He could not be the Messiah. Now, what if He met that and other time/place prophecies but failed in the spiritual? What if this candidate for Messiah, had been born in the right place, to the right person, etc., but taught that God was actually a three-headed, spaghetti monster who said that raping children was great?
Obviously, he could not be the Messiah no matter how many of the other prophecies He had fulfilled. It doesn’t even matter, if he died and rose from the dead, he still could not be the Messiah. In fact, the Bible tells that a prophet who works wonders but tries to turn you away from God’s ways as Moses was giving them, was a false prophet and should be killed even if his signs come true. Good to remember, since the antichrist will work miracles.
So then, any messiah who was anti-torah, could not be Messiah. And it makes no sense to even imagine it. If you read through the Old Testament, looking up every use of the word Torah (law), you will not find one disparaging comment from God’s prophets or faithful people. You will not find one hint that Torah was going way. Not one. That’s why everyone goes to Paul.
Just to be clear: I’m not criticizing Paul. I’m pointing out what should alarm any serious student of the word: If no one else is saying what Paul is saying . . . either Paul is a heretic, or we’re misunderstanding Paul.
Furthermore, you will find that Isra’el suffered tremendous tragedy and for more than a thousand years was rebuked for not keeping the Torah.
So re-examine the common church doctrine:
You’re saying that for thousands of years, God praised the Torah from one end of the scriptures to the other, and punished you for transgressing it, including the slaughter, rape, exile and slavery of your people…told you to stone prophet (even if their signs came true) if they tried to turn you from Torah…and then God sends a messiah who’s ministry mocks Torah, and starts a religion of throwing it away?
You might begin to see how one could question the justice of such a god. It’s no wonder that some church theologians have even suggested there are two gods in the bible.
For me and other Messianics, we read the New Testament writers from the context of someone who would be in agreement with that unanimous opinion of the Old Testament. And doing that I’ve found that the Bible begins to make sense as a whole, rather than in parts.
How I Messianic Now
Since taking up the Torah, and especially since I really started to study with this cohesive story in mind, my doctrine also becomes more stable. I don’t feel as threatened as I used to, when I met another believer of a different doctrine.
For example, I was taught women are not in the image of God, because Paul says that man is the image of God, and woman is the image of man, and the preferred ‘He’ pronoun for God means He is male. But from a cohesive standpoint, I look back to the beginning and find that both male and female are the image of God, and then understand Paul to mean something other than the superficial. Or Paul says women should not teach or even speak in church, but the Torah never forbids either so I read Paul through that lens and conclude that’s he’s talking about a specific situation, not a new church order.
Another really great example is the woman of John 8, caught in adultery. Most churches teach Yeshua was being a heretic by denouncing the law as cruel (which is insane, since if you believe Jesus was God, then Jesus is the one who gave the command that adulterers should be stoned). But, if you actually study what the Torah says, then you find that Yeshua was the only one keeping the Torah that day.
1) the command was for both the man and woman. Where’s the man?
2) no judgment could happen without the woman being given a chance to make her plea. She never said a word.
3) A judge was to seek justice only. These guys were there for the express purpose of trapping Yeshua, in the temple, on a holy day. Justice was not in their minds.
4) No one was to be put to death without the testimony of two witnesses. They said she was caught, but do we know that they were in fact witnesses?
5) Yeshua says, “He that is without sin . . .” Convicted, the accusers all leave. Think about that. That means because they knew they were transgressors of the law, that stirred them to actually be more merciful. In other words, meditating on Torah leads to mercy, not cruelty.
6) The Torah says that the first to throw a stone, had to be the witnesses. The maybe witnesses had all left, so the death penalty could not have been carried out, even by Yeshua.
7) The command didn’t even say death for someone who had committed adultery, but for one who practices (on going, continual) adultery.
8) The Torah also says that the child shall not be put to death for the parents, so with a woman you would have to be sure that she was not pregnant, which would mean you could not carry out the sentence in the heat of the moment.
9) The biggie is that the law is tied to the character of God, to believe the law required a repentant adulterer to be stoned in the temple, on a holy day, even if it meant killing an unborn child shows the hardness of our hearts. Thus the Torah again shows us our wickedness, not the wickedness of the Torah.
It probably comes as surprise to most Christians but in John 7:19 Yeshua declares his adversaries did not keep the law. If Christians understood this, perhaps they would stop seeing the scribes and pharisees as the poster boys of Torah.
Another great example is Miryam/Mary, mother of Yeshua. It’s often, erroneously stated that accepting God’s mission for her, could have meant death at the hands of the law. Not true. As stated above, where are her accusing witnesses? Suppose they had brought her before the judges, she would have claimed to be a virgin. As degrading as it may sound, that could have been checked. Do you think Miryam would have been more opposed to being examined, then having her holy child be called a bastard? Boom, instead of having her killed, following the Torah would have had it etched in the record she was a pregnant virgin.
Or even better, the Torah has a strange ritual specifically for the case when a man suspected his wife had committed adultery (without witnesses). Why do you suppose God went through the trouble of dealing with that specific situation? If Joseph indeed suspected Mary as unfaithful, he could have had her undergo that ritual in the temple, again the result would have been the priest determining from God, Himself, that Mary was a pregnant virgin.
So, walking in Torah has only deepened my understanding. I could say how Torah has much improved my prayer life, or made me a lot less concerned about little doctrinal squabbles, or whether my doctrinal positions are perfect.
I’d really have liked to talk about how, I hear people say that focusing on the ‘rules’ (church rules alienated from Torah) made them overly concerned with their standing before God, in many cases becoming depressed or even questioning their salvation.
For me, the more I practice Torah, and study the commands, the less concerned I become with perfection. Torah teaches that it is God who sanctifies, obedience is ‘merely’ the means He uses to do it. When I keep a command, God is using that to make me able to do even more obedience. More importantly, every time I keep a commandment, I am momentarily sharing in direct communion with God because the commandments are His heart. So when I obey, His heart is beating for mine. Rather than make me afraid, I’m not doing good enough, obedience makes me focus on who He is, and rather than fearing I’m not doing enough to earn something, I find myself hungry to do more so I can be closer to the Father.
What Christians don’t understand is the significance of the “I AM the LORD” attached to the commandments in the Torah. What it means is that each commandment is a reflection of God’s character and person. Obedience isn’t jumping through hoops like a dog to please his master; obedience is God teaching you how to walk with Him, making you like Him, so you can go the places He goes. And see the things He sees. It makes us like Him, and there can’t be a happier place than that.
But I have slain enough digital trees, and there’s only so much you can communicate via writing. Plus, I fear my readers didn’t make it this far. This is long, even for one of my blogs. But maybe the story format kept you around?
How I Got Here, And why I can’t leave
In summary, I didn’t come to be Messianic in a moment nor has it been a phase. I hope some of the people who worry I’m in some kind of cult will walk the path of questions that I did, and see—even if you don’t reach the same conclusion—those were good questions based on scripture and reason, and not some weird private revelation.
And let me leave you with a handful of those questions that maintain me in the convictions I currently hold, and have held for more or less 19 years.
1) How could God be just, telling Isra’el for a thousand years to guard and cherish His law, praise it as good, wisdom, the way to live, light, glorious, right . . . and then without any prophetic warning send them a messiah who would tear it down?
2) All are saved by faith, as was Abraham. We get this model from Abraham, so why did God later give the law? He’d already revealed the only way to salvation, so why add the ‘wrong way’ (by law) when the right way (by faith) had already been revealed?
3) If the law is all the good things that God said, then why is the church so opposed to it? Even if you ‘can’t’ be faithful to your wife perfectly, I’ve never heard the Christian that says don’t try. I’ve never heard the Christian speak against teaching children to honor their parents. So whether it’s possible or not, if the law is good as God and Paul both said, why fight not to try?
4) On the other hand, if the law is actually bad, out of date, and odious . . . why was it so important for Yeshua to keep it? Are we saying that Yeshua was sinless because he lived up to a bad standard? Does God send people to hell because they fail to live up to a standard that’s so bad, that even God wants to get rid of it?
5) What does it say about God if the law is truly bad? If Yeshua is God, what does it say about Him, since He’s the one who said to stone adulterers? Or, what does it say about the law, since Yeshua is the one who wrote it?
6) Yeshua had to be sinless, according to the law, which meant he could not try to turn people away from Torah . . . so all of his teachings are within the context of a law that is allegedly bad, so wouldn’t his most important teachings be after his resurrection when the law is allegedly void? Yet, there’s very little teaching recorded after his death. Why did he waste so much time teaching sermons within the context of a standard he actually wanted to tear down? He should have died, resurrected and then done his ministry.
7) If Yeshua did teach against the Torah, why does Peter so quickly oppose the vision of eating unclean things? Didn’t he get the memo? Such a change would have been huge, did he miss one of the hugest parts of Yeshua’s ministry? How did the elders of Jerusalem, along with James and Peter lead a congregation of thousands of Jews that were ‘zealous’ of the law? Were James and Peter epic failures? How had they failed to pass on this massive doctrinal shift? Why does Paul go along with upholding their error by encouraging it by actually doing sacrifice in the temple? For that matter, if Yeshua had spent his time on earth casting down the Torah, how did he attract thousands who were zealous of the Torah? And when there is a question about whether the gentiles needed to keep Torah to be saved, they agreed that no one was saved by keeping Torah, but then they give four items to be kept that come from Torah, one of which is a dietary ordinance (not to eat strangled things, and possibly, not to eat blood), with the expectation that they will be in the synagogue learning Moses every Sabbath . . . Wouldn’t the logical thing have been, to take this opportunity to say, “Guys the law doesn’t matter for any of us. Let alone the gentiles, let alone for salvation. And you probably shouldn’t go to synagogue if you’re a gentile because you might learn jewish traditions. And you don’t really need Moses, just get a copy of Isaiah 53, and we’ll give you the apostle’s creed for your churches. That’s all you need.” In summary, if Yeshua taught the end of Torah, why were so many of His followers so confused about whether they should or not?
8) Why is it that the people who most easily trust in Yeshua (like Joseph, Mary, Elizabeth, Zacharias) are all reported to be just/blameless in regards to the law? While Yeshua’s adversaries like some scribes and Pharisees are described as people who don’t keep the Torah or pervert it? Why were the largest mass conversions to devout Jews from every nation? Why was the largest congregation one full of people zealous for the Torah? One would almost have to say that keeping Torah actually made you better able both to accept and to follow Yeshua . . . ?
9) Why can’t someone find this shift predicted in the Old Testament?
I could go on but to me, those nine—taken always with the fact that the Old Testament is unanimously approving of Torah—are by themselves insurmountable obstacles to throwing away the Torah.
But if you are unconvinced. I still love you.