Heirs of Abraham: What is the orthodox faith of Israel?

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Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness”
Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.
(Galatians 3:6-7, Genesis 15:6).

What is orthodoxy?

The term, orthodoxy, is usually associated with strict religious observance. In the context of Rabbinical Judaism, extreme orthodoxy has come to be associated with bearded men dressed in long black coats and wide-brimmed black hats with long side curls (peot). In the context of Christendom the term is often applied to those churches which claim to be the guardians of orthodox Christianity, such as the Greek orthodox, the Russian orthodox and the Roman Catholic church.

In both cases the external trappings, which create the impression of orthodoxy, are carry-overs from traditions and cultures of bygone days and have little to do with Biblical orthodoxy. Many traditions that are associated with Christianity have their origins in pagan traditions rather than the Bible. However, Judaism has also accumulated many traditions which are not found in the Bible. For this reason Bible-believing Christians often have a very negative perception of orthodoxy. With so many competing claims to orthodoxy how do we discern what is truly orthodox?

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definition: Holding correct or accepted views especially on religion, not heretical or original; generally accepted as right or true, approved, conventional.

Foundations of orthodoxy

True orthodoxy is founded solely upon the authority of God’s word. The LORD said, “To the Torah and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn” (Isaiah 8:20). In order to maintain an orthodox faith we cannot be ignorant of God’s word: “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children.” (Hosea 4:5-6)

The true orthodox faith of Israel, is to believe God, as Abraham did, and to demonstrate our belief through obedience. Abraham was commended, not only for believing, but for responding in obedience to God’s word: “. . . through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws” (Genesis 26:5). Abraham is called the father of the faithful. He was given the promise that he would be the father of many nations, which in the New Testament is plainly revealed to be those who emulate the faith of Abraham, not necessarily the natural descendants.

The people of Israel were called to be a holy nation (i.e. separate), maintaining the orthodox faith that was entrusted to them through Moses and the prophets. They were to be the channel of God’s blessing to the world, bringing the light of God’s word to the nations. Most importantly, the Messiah, who would crush the head of the serpent and redeem mankind from the consequence of Adam’s fall, was to be born from the line of Judah. He is the one through whom all nations receive the blessing promised to Abraham.

Biblical Judaism is the root and foundation of the Christian faith. The messianic idea is rooted firmly in the T’nach (Old Testament). The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is the progressive revelation of God’s purpose to reconcile man to himself through his Messiah. The Talmud acknowledges that Messiah is the primary subject of Scripture – “The world was created only for the Messiah” (San. 99a, 98b), “All the prophets prophesied only for the days of the Messiah” (Ber.34b). Jesus claimed the very same thing in reference to himself: “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).

Belief in the Messiah is the very cornerstone of both Christianity and Judaism. Where they differ is in the identity of the Messiah. Christianity is founded upon the belief that Jesus is the Messiah. It is upon this confession that the church is built (Matthew 16:18). There is no Christianity without Christ (Messiah). Rabbinic Judaism denies the Messiahship of Jesus. While some still maintain a fervent hope in the coming of a messiah, many have depersonalised the messianic idea to an expectation of a messianic era in which mankind will achieve its highest ideals of peace and progress, reflecting the humanistic trend in modern Rabbinic Judaism. Furthermore, the divinity of the Messiah is denied.

The Heir of Biblical Judaism

Following the destruction of the Temple, and the scattering of the Jewish nation, two divergent streams emerged – Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Both claimed to be the successors of the true faith of Israel and both appealed to the authority of Scripture to substantiate their claim to orthodoxy. Which of these is the true heir of the orthodox faith of Israel? The answer to this hinges entirely on the veracity of the claims of Jesus to be the Messiah. If Jesus is not the Messiah then Christians have based their faith in a vain hope and Rabbinic Judaism is the rightful heir of the orthodox faith of Israel. If Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, believing in him is absolutely essential to an orthodox faith.

The LORD promised Moses that he would send another prophet, who is likened to Moses, to declare his word. The Torah pronounces judgement on anyone who fails to listen to this prophet:

“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him” (Deut. 18:15). The LORD said to me (Moses): “I will put my words in his (the Messiah’s) mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the Prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account” (Deut. 18:18).

The Apostle Peter quoted this verse as follows: “Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from among his people” (Acts 3:23). The reason for the severity of the judgement is that, in reality, they are rejecting the one who sent him, the very one whom they claim to worship. One cannot remain in covenantal relationship to God while rejecting his word.

Jesus claimed that this prophecy was fulfilled in him:

“My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me; if any man’s will is to do his will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.” (John 7:16-17).

“The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works . . . the word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.” (John 14:10,24).

“As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.” (John 12:47-50)

According to Scripture the appointed time for the Messiah to come was during the first century of the common era (Dan. 9:25). There was fervent messianic expectancy among the Jewish people at the time, of which even secular sources make mention. According to the Hebrew prophets the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, a descendant of the royal line of David. Jesus was born at the appointed time fulfilling these and many other prophecies, including Isaiah’s prophecy that he would be a light to the Gentiles to bring salvation to the ends of the earth (49:6).

Rabbinic sources acknowledge that “all the predestined dates have passed,” ascribing the supposed delay to our sins. They rejected Jesus as the Messiah because he did not fit their messianic preconceptions, which were based on selective prophecies instead of the complete revelation of the Messiah’s mission as set forth in Scripture, including his suffering and death before his glorious reign.

God promised through the prophet Jeremiah that he would make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. In about 30 CE, on the eve of the crucifixion, Jesus declared that the time for the new covenant had arrived – the fulfilment of God’s gracious promise to forgive their sins through the atonement provided by the blood of Messiah and to write his law upon their hearts by His Spirit (see Jer. 31:31, Ezek. 36:26 and Dan. 9.24).

That this covenant differs in many respects from the old covenant, especially with regard to external observances, is not denied. The LORD specifically said that the new covenant would not be like the covenant he made with them at Mt. Sinai (Jer.31:32). The temple in Jerusalem had been central to worship under the old covenant. Jesus told his followers that the time had come when true worship would not be tied to the temple in Jerusalem or to any specific locality, but that true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-24). The new covenant embodied the universal spiritual truths that were typified in the old covenant, but was independent of its external supports.

Jesus forewarned his followers that the temple would be destroyed, saying that not one stone would be left upon another, signifying that what had been superseded by the new covenant would soon disappear altogether. He prophesied the utter desolation of the city and the temple, and the scattering of the Jewish people to all the nations until the end of the times of the gentiles. The fact that his disciples were forewarned, enabling them to escape, bears witness to the truth of their testimony, for Scripture declares, “Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7).

When judgement came, those who failed to heed the warnings of Jesus were trapped in the siege of Jerusalem. During the siege false prophets abounded, assuring the people that God would deliver them and protect his holy temple. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, who was an eyewitness to the events of those days, in excess of one million people perished. The question must be asked as to why God allowed such a severe and prolonged judgement. The exile to Babylon, which came about as a result of extreme apostasy and idolatry, was for a limited duration and was preceded by continual warnings through the prophets. Jesus said that the judgement on Jerusalem in 70CE was for one reason only – they had failed to recognise the Messiah in their midst (Luke 19:44). Does not two thousand years of exile testify to this truth?

Jesus warned that the keys of the kingdom would be taken away from the religious authorities who rejected his authority, and given to others who would bring forth the fruit required by God:

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes?’ Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. (Matthew 21:42-45).
The disciples and apostles of Jesus were the messengers sent forth to proclaim the new covenant to the ends of the earth.

Post temple Rabbinic Judaism

Rabbinic Judaism also emerged out of the ruins of the temple worship of the old covenant. While judgement was being visited upon the people and the city of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai was smuggled out of the besieged city in a coffin. He obtained permission from the Roman authorities to establish a Rabbinical academy at Yavneh in an effort to preserve the teachings of Judaism. The believers in the Messiah understood the destruction of the temple as the culmination of the old covenant economy, which had been made obsolete by the new covenant.

Rabbinic Judaism refused to acknowledge that the old covenant had been made obsolete by a new and better covenant, despite the fact that the Torah given to Moses was centred around the temple, the priesthood and continual sacrifices, all of which had been abolished by force of circumstance. They had no explanation for the severe and continuing judgement which had come upon the people, which, according to the Torah, could only be ascribed to disobedience.

Refusing to acknowledge that the Messiah had come and established the new covenant, the Rabbis sought to find new meaning for the distinctive calling of the Jews in the diaspora. Judaism, deprived of land, temple and central authority, was left with only the book of the law. For Judaism to survive, the law and the festivals had to be reinterpreted without the priesthood and the sacrificial system around which much of the law revolved.

The temple, which had been the focal point of religious worship had to be replaced by the synagogue, something to which Jews in the diaspora were already accustomed. In particular, the question of how to obtain forgiveness without sacrifices had to be answered. Some suggested that prayer and repentance were sufficient in themselves, others stressed the redemptive value of suffering. The fact that these did not satisfy the demands of Torah can be seen from the attempts to find merit for the sins of Israel in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Another suggestion to compensate for the cessation of sacrifices was that Elijah offered continual sacrifices for Israel in heaven.

The religion that emerged was a Judaism reformed to accommodate vastly different circumstances. That which is commonly referred to as “Orthodox Judaism” is in fact “Reformed Judaism.” The new Judaism was humanistic, replacing the sacrifices and the mediation of priests with all sorts of obligations (mitzvot) to compensate for two-thirds of the Torah which could no longer be observed. It was during this period that the Talmud was developed, preserving the sayings and opinions of the notable Rabbis and sages of the time. The Talmud has practically displaced the Scriptures in order of importance in Rabbinic Judaism. It is seen as the key to understanding Scripture, with the result that the word of God is seen through the filter of mens’ opinions. The claim that the oral law was given to Moses and passed down by oral tradition, aside from obvious inconsistencies, is contradicted by the testimony of Scripture:

“Afterward, Joshua read all the words of the law–the blessings and the curses–just as it is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and children, and the aliens who lived among them.”

God entrusted his word to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but his people to whom he entrusts his word, are fallible and are not always faithful in the way in which they handle his word:

Even the stork in the sky knows her appointed seasons, and the dove, the swift and the thrush observe the time of their migration. But my people do not know the requirements of the LORD. How can you say, “We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD,” when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely? The wise will be put to shame; they will be dismayed and trapped. Since they have rejected the word of the LORD, what kind of wisdom do they have? (Jeremiah 8:7-9)

Of the six hundred and thirteen laws, about two-thirds relate to the temple and sacrifices, but the third that remains has been augmented by countless additions, designed to create a hedge around the Torah to prevent any infringement. Jewish customs and traditions have become binding upon the people through the dictates of the elders (the ruling of the elders was binding upon the people – Deuteronomy 17:8-13). This appeals to human pride, creating the impression of religious zeal, but it is not true faithfulness if it is not ordained by God.

The LORD is not interested in external displays of religious piety unless they are accompanied by true worship from the heart: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.” (Isaiah 29:13). Jesus said, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men” (Mark 7:8). Obedience flows from true worship. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command . . . He who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:15,24). Jesus delivered a withering rebuke, recorded in Matthew chapter 23, against religious practices that are designed to impress men, but which fail to uphold the truth. He accused the Pharisees of straining out a gnat, but swallowing a camel. The prophet Isaiah predicted this very thing:

“For it is: Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule a little here, a little there. Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people, to whom he said, “This is the resting place, let the weary rest” (see Matthew 11:28); and, “This is the place of repose”– but they would not listen. So then, the word of the LORD to them will become: Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there– so that they will go and fall backward, be injured and snared and captured. (Isaiah 28:9-13).

The Torah is one complete body of laws and regulations. The Torah does not permit anything to be added to or taken away from it. “See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32). Failure to keep even one law makes one a lawbreaker. Those who teach that the extent of observance is optional are rightly accused of being unorthodox. However, as far as the Torah is concerned, all have been bound over to disobedience by God. The truth of the matter is that if the Torah is enforced without amendments all men are condemned as sinners – and the penalty of sin is death. The Apostle Paul expressed this truth saying, “therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Those who seek to be justified by the law will find that it is the very law that condemns them.

The only way to be freed from the obligations to the Torah was through death. It is an irony that the founder of Rabbinic Judaism escaped from the besieged city of Jerusalem by feigning death. However, this offered no escape from the curses of the law for disobedience. The disciples of Jesus, on the other hand, acknowledged their sin, counting themselves as having died with the Messiah through baptism, so that they were set free from the old covenant to receive the blessings of the new covenant. This fully upholds the law of Moses which condemns sinners to death. Even the Rabbis, without realizing it, uphold this truth, counting Jews who have been baptized in the name of Jesus as though they are dead. Having abolished the sacrifices which provided atonement under the old covenant, God has provided only one means of atonement through the final sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of all mankind.

The Torah does not say that one who brings a teaching that is contrary to the Torah must be ignored. On the contrary it says, “You must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly” (Deut. 13:14). Yet the Rabbis, while claiming that Jesus was a deceiver and that no one can believe in him and remain orthodox, have kept the Jewish people in the dark by discouraging any investigation into his teaching as recorded in the New Testament. Careful examination will show that his teaching, and that of his apostles, is in perfect accord with the Torah and the word of God spoken through the Prophets. Furthermore, it will be found that he is the Messiah of whom the Hebrew prophets prophesied. True orthodox Judaism is that which believes in and follows the Messiah, to which the old covenant was pointing.

The split between Church and Synagogue

The early church was considered a Jewish sect. Its members were either Jewish or proselytes to Judaism. They saw no conflict in their belief that the Messiah of Israel had come and their continued membership of the Jewish community. In fact it was the conversion of gentiles which created controversy. The synagogue was the communal gathering place and they continued to worship there until they were forced to separate. When the apostles were sent further afield with the message of the gospel they always went first to the synagogue.

The tension between the believers and the synagogue was exacerbated by the influx of gentiles into the church. Jewish believers were associated with a movement to which gentiles were converting in large numbers. This posed a threat to Jewish identity at a time when the very survival of the Jewish nation was at stake. It also brought to a head issues concerning the observance of the law of Moses in relation to the new covenant and gentile proselytes. With nothing left of the old covenant economy apart from the book of the law, the Rabbis became preoccupied in applying the law to every detail of daily life. Without an understanding of the spiritual reality of the new covenant law written upon the heart, Paul’s teaching concerning the law must have seemed incomprehensible, requiring them to let go of all that was left of old covenant Judaism. A misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching, leading to antinomianism among some gentile converts, would have greatly accentuated the rift.

The introduction of the “Birkat-ha-minim” into the eighteen benedictions repeated in the synagogue made continuing fellowship impossible. This declaration, denouncing “heretics,” was designed to expose Jewish believers in the Messiah. Later forms refer only to minim or heretics, but according to Jerome there was an express condemnation of “Nazarenes,” which believers in Jesus could not pronounce. Letters were sent to the synagogues throughout the diaspora denouncing the teachings of the followers of Jesus and demanding their excommunication. Isaiah prophesied this very thing:

Hear the word of the LORD, you who tremble at his word: “Your brothers who hate you, and exclude you because of my name, have said, ‘Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy!’ Yet they will be put to shame. Hear that uproar from the city, hear that noise from the temple! It is the sound of the LORD repaying his enemies all they deserve. (66:5-6)

Jesus also forewarned his disciples that they would endure persecution for the sake of his name:

“Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.” (Luke 6:22).

The Jews enjoyed certain privileges to practise their religion without interference under Roman rule. While the Christians remained under the umbrella of Judaism, they enjoyed the same protection, but once they were expelled from the synagogue and perceived as an illicit religion they were exposed to persecutions from Rome. The final split came with the revolt in 135CE when Rabbi Akiva proclaimed Bar-Kochba as the Messiah. This forced the believers in Jesus to distance themselves from their countrymen.

From Shadow to Reality

We have already made the point that Biblical Judaism is the root of our faith in Messiah and there is no conflict between the faith of the old covenant and the faith revealed in the new covenant. The ordinances of the old covenant, the sacrifices, the temple and the priesthood all prefigured the spiritual realities found in the new covenant and were given to prepare the hearts of the people for the inward reality that would be wrought through the Messiah. The rite of circumcision, which was the mark of belonging to the covenant people, was given to teach the people of the true circumcision of the heart which was to be revealed through the new covenant. This true circumcision was announced beforehand in the Torah: “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts” (Deut. 30:6).

True orthodoxy is not merely to be a Jew by outward appearance, but to be a Jew inwardly, through the circumcision of the heart by the Spirit. This is confirmed by the Apostle Paul: “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God (Romans 2:28). Men judge by external appearances, but God weighs the heart. Many Jews appear orthodox by external appearances, but a truly orthodox Jew is one who is circumcised in the heart (see Jer. 9:25-26).

This circumcision of the heart is no longer just symbolic, but involves a putting off of the sinful nature, which can only be done by the work of God’s Spirit in the heart of man. It is only when we receive the Spirit of God that we can worship Him in spirit and in truth. True believers are governed, not by a written code, but by the Spirit who brings forth the fruit of righteousness through the inward reality of a changed heart. This righteousness is not merely the observance of external rules and regulations. That is why Jesus said to his disciples, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

There can be no orthodoxy apart from truth. This rules out false claims to orthodoxy based on the traditions of men, whether from Rabbinical Judaism or apostate Christianity, who by their very traditions nullify the word of God. However, orthodoxy which appeals to Scripture for its authority, but which is devoid of the life of the Spirit is dead orthodoxy. The word, apart from the illumination of the Spirit, cannot be understood. Spiritual life goes beyond merely an intellectual grasp and assent to truth. True orthodoxy occurs where both the authority of the word of God and the reality of being filled with and led by the Spirit is preserved.

Jesus said, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).

He also said, “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1).

Sometimes believers in the Jewish Messiah are impressed by the apparent piety and the external trappings and traditions of Rabbinical Judaism and are tempted to revert to legalistic observances to prove their faithfulness. The apostle Paul wrote: “The law is not based on faith” (Gal. 3:12). It is a mistake to think that because something is external, visible and tangible it is more real than that which is internal and invisible. The old covenant is described in the book of Hebrews as merely the shadow of the reality that is in Christ. Every type and shadow of the old covenant – sacrifices, ordinances, festivals, the temple and its furnishings – all point to the reality that is found in Messiah.

An understanding of their typical fulfilment greatly enriches our faith, but if we fail to grasp the reality in Christ we may end up exchanging the reality for shadows again. The forms and shadows, though they may appear concrete and visible, are not the reality. The external trappings are like the mould which a sculptor uses to cast a sculpture. Once the sculpture has been cast, the external mould is removed, having served its purpose. The mould gives an idea of the form that the sculpture will take, but it is not the real thing. Clinging to the shadows of the old covenant, when the reality has been revealed in the new covenant is like exchanging the completed sculpture for the broken mould.

True and faithful believers in Messiah need not be overawed by extravagant religious rituals and ceremonies which make a pretense of orthodoxy and create an outward impression of piety. The Apostle Paul described the false piety of man-made rules and traditions as having an appearance of wisdom, but lacking any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Col. 2:23). Believers in Yeshua, who have experienced the reality of the circumcision of the Spirit, and who have been baptised into Messiah, have undergone the true conversion to the orthodox faith of Israel. This is the true faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Paul, defending the authenticity of this conversion against those who were taking pride in external shadows, is emphatic in declaring, “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil.3:3). The worshippers that God seeks are those who worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:23).

The apostle Paul wrote: Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10). Believing in Yeshua, the Messiah of Israel is the most orthodox expression of true faith in the God of Israel.