THE HEBREW ROOTS MOVEMENT
A growing number of Christians are coming to an appreciation of the Jewish roots of Christianity and a love for the Sabbath and biblical festivals. Who are they? What can we learn from them?
A great ecumenical wave is sweeping through the Christian world. Increasingly, Christians are joining together across denominational and racial lines to affirm the great truths they hold in common and rededicate themselves to lives of discipleship. For example, in a 1994 declaration entitled, ``Evangelicals and Catholics Together: the Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,'' a group of American Evangelical and Catholic leaders expressed their resolve that all Christians unite to promote their shared values in a world that so sorely needs those values.
In the Evangelical community, thousands find strength, inspiration, and renewal at rallies sponsored by organizations like Women of Faith , Acquire the Fire,and Promise Keepers. I have never attended a Promise Keepers rally, but last fall, I experienced an ecumenical event that to me was at least as thrilling. On October 2-3, 1998, the Sabbath immediately before the Feast of Tabernacles, I participated in a joyous Feast of Tabernacles celebration held at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Kettering, Ohio. At this event, three hundred Christians from several denominations rejoiced, through songs and study of the Scriptures, in all the wonderful things that the Feast represents.
The celebration began with an inspirational Friday-night worship service. The excitement in the air brought back memories of services from the opening night of the Feast in years gone by. To my knowledge, though, I was the only one in attendance with any connection to the Worldwide Church of God (WCG).
The festivities continued the next morning with a stimulating Bible Study expounding the full context and meaning of Jesus' famous words from the Last Great Day of the Feast recorded in John 7:37-38. This study, delivered by Dwight A. Pryor, an elder of the Church of the Messiah (Dayton,Ohio), reminded me of some of the deep messages that I had heard at past WCG festivals and treasured through the years. The study was followed by a catered Israeli-style lunch, afternoon seminars, and a concluding worship service.
Events like this ecumenical festival gathering are far-from-isolated occurrences these days. A growing number of Christians are discovering the deep meanings of the Sabbath and annual festival days and the great joy and peace that can accompany their observance. These Christians join together to learn about and celebrate an important part of the common heritage of all Christians-the roots of Christianity in the biblical Judaism of our Jewish Messiah and His disciples. Together, they make up what has come to be known as the Hebrew Roots movement.
The Hebrew Roots movement is composed of a diverse variety of believers and ministries, united in the conviction that our understanding of the New Testament, our relationship with our Savior, and the mission of the Church can all be enhanced by a greater knowledge of the Jewish background of Christianity. These Christians and Messianic Jews hope to break down the barriers of mutual antagonism and ignorance that Christians and Jews have erected between themselves over the centuries, barriers that have exacted a high price for both groups. In particular, Christian antisemitism has led to intense persecution of the Jews through the centuries, placing a huge stumbling-block in the path of efforts to proclaim the true Messiah to the Jewish community. In addition, Christian ignorance of and hostility toward Judaism have often blurred Christian understanding of the teachings of Jesus and Paul.
A key scriptural passage for these believers is the eleventh chapter of Paul's epistle to the Romans. In this chapter, Paul describes Gentile Christians as “wild olive branches'' grafted into the cultivated olive tree of Israel to form one unified people of God. Of special note is v.18, in which Paul instructs Gentile Christians, ``... do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.'' (NIV) Christians in the Hebrew Roots movement take seriously this admonition from Paul to not take an arrogant attitude toward Jews or Judaism. They hope instead to be enriched by a greater knowledge of the Jewish roots of Christianity, and they pray for the time Paul speaks of in v. 26, when ``all Israel will be saved.''
Why are Christians now coming to explore the Jewish roots of their faith? At least three current trends have helped bring about this remarkable development. First, the Holocaust has shocked modern Christianity into an awareness of the horrible consequences of antisemitism and moved the Church to begin a process of soul-searching and repentance. This process
has included dialogue between Christian and Jewish leaders and renewed examination of the early histories of Christianity and Judaism, in hopes of greater understanding and an eventual healing of the centuries-long rift between these two communities of faith.
Second, during a time of unprecedented increase of knowledge about the world of the first century, a great many scholars have come to a consensus that the key to comprehending the historical Jesus and Paul is an understanding of their Jewishness. According to evangelical New Testament scholar R.T. France, ``the most fruitful aspect of continuing studies of the historical Jesus'' is ``the increasing readiness to set him firmly in the context of the Jewish world of his time, combined with a growing acquaintance among New Testament scholars with the historical data outside the New Testament which make this possible.'' 1 Writer Charlotte Allen, after a thorough study of the history of the ``quest for the historical Jesus,'' has reached a similar conclusion. In the introduction to her recent book The Human Christ (The Free Press, 1998), Allen writes,
``For most of its history, Christianity's sin was that of having forgotten its Jewish roots. In some ways, this was understandable: The Christian Church soon became overwhelmingly Gentile; Jerusalem, where it had been born, was physically obliterated by the Romans at the beginning of the second century, and its Jews were driven from memory. Christians retained the Psalms in their liturgy and the Old Testament in their Bibles, but they chose to ignore the fact that Jesus and his earliest followers had been steeped in an intense and intellectually creative Jewish religiosity that had translated itself into the earliest Christian theology of the crucified Messiah. By and large, the secular quest for the historical Jesus has carried on the old, erroneous Christian tradition of regarding Jesus as an opponent of Judaism. Even today there is a tendency among avant-garde Jesus-searchers to view him as an anti-establishment figure with respect to the institutions of his own religion. The most fruitful branch of Jesus research in recent years has centered on his status as a figure (albeit problematic) within Judaism.'' (p.7)
This trend in the scholarly world is reflected in the broader Christian community. Many Christians are learning more about the Judaism of Jesus' time in order to better grasp the life, practices, and teachings of their Savior.
A third factor is the ongoing desire of Christians to preach the gospel to the Jewish community. Current efforts at Jewish evangelism have been spearheaded by Messianic Jews-i.e., Jews who follow Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. 2 The Messianic movement, which has been growing rapidly over the last thirty years, has also played a key role in the Hebrew Roots movement by teaching Christians much about the Jewishness of Christianity.
HOW WE CAN BENEFIT
I believe that the Hebrew Roots movement is one of the most exciting developments in modern Christianity and has much to offer us in the WCG. Here I will highlight two ways in which we can benefit from the example and teachings available from the Hebrew Roots movement.
Support and Encouragement. For those of us who love the Sabbath and annual festivals, these can be discouraging times in WCG. It has become ``politically incorrect'' in many congregations to publicly express appreciation for the Sabbath at a Sabbath service. Not uncommonly, festival services are held grudgingly, if at all, and then all too often any mention or acknowledgment of the great meanings of the festivals is carefully avoided. In such difficult times, it is encouraging to know that there are other Christians, like those at the Feast of Tabernacles celebration in Kettering, who love these traditions. The Hebrew Roots movement sets an example for our denomination as a whole, showing how Christians can rejoice in the Sabbath and festivals in a Christ-centered way without legalism.
A Balanced Perspective. In the past, the WCG rejected many parts of Christian and Jewish tradition as invalid. More recently, we have come to appreciate the value of Christian tradition but have largely maintained our ignorance of and contempt for Jewish tradition. (This ignorance and contempt is still held, unfortunately, in far too many Christian circles.) As a result, we often find it convenient now to resort to anti-Judaic misconceptions and stereotypes in support of a theology of sharp discontinuity between Old and New Testaments and Old and New Covenants.
One such misconception is the idea that Judaism and the Mosaic Covenant are systems of salvation by works, in contrast to the salvation by grace offered by the New Covenant. However, the truth is that salvation has always been by God's grace, in both Judaism and Christianity, Old Covenant and New. 3 Paul emphasizes this, for example, in Romans 4. Also interesting in this regard is Galatians 2:15-16, in which Paul writes: ``We who are Jews by birth and not `Gentile sinners' know that a man is not justified by observing the law ....'' (NIV) Paul says in this passage that the concept of salvation by faith is a familiar and natural one to a Jew.
Greater knowledge of the Jewish religion and culture of the first century, as promoted by the Hebrew Roots movement, can enable us to obtain a more balanced perspective on the teachings of Jesus and Paul and the meaning of the New Covenant.
IN THIS ISSUE
Regular readers of Grace and Knowledge have already seen some of the insights that can result from an understanding of the Jewish roots of Christianity. For example, in our first issue, we saw that with a knowledge of Jewish Feast of Trumpets customs, one can detect links between New Testament passages that employ trumpet symbolism and the Feast of Trumpets itself. These links lend support to our traditional understanding of the prophetic meanings of the Feast of Trumpets.
In this issue, we present more examples of how a knowledge of Jewish customs and culture can shed light on the traditions of the early church and the teachings of Jesus. Many in the WCG are now wondering how it could be that even the earliest Christians seem to have celebrated the Eucharist more than once a year when Jesus introduced this ceremony on Passover, which is a strictly annual observance. In our lead article, Jared Olar suggests an answer to this question based on what we know of Jewish Passover and Sabbath customs. This article is the longest we have published, but it is also the most important. We believe that it will give you a greater appreciation of the significance of this central ritual of Christianity, as well as answers to some of the questions you may have had about its history.
In another article, ``Jesus the Master Teacher,'' we present several examples of Jesus' remarkable skills as a teacher. In each case, a knowledge of the Jewish background of the New Testament leads to greater insight into the depth of our Savior's words.
We hope that you are blessed by this issue of Grace and Knowledge and look forward to your comments and questions.
TO FIND OUT MORE . . . .
An introduction to the Jewish roots of Christianity can be found in Marvin R. Wilson's marvelous book, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (W.B. Eerdmans, 1989). Professor Wilson has included study questions at the end of each chapter, making the book ideal for small-group studies.
Many Christians appreciate the Hebraic insights contained in The Jewish New Testament, a translation of the New Testament by Messianic leader David Stern.
1 Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, Alister E. McGrath, editor, Blackwell, Oxford, 1993, p. 264.
2 For a discussion of the Messianic movement, see the article ``The Return of the Jewish Church'' in the September 7, 1998, issue of Christianity Today .
3 See for example Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith , by Marvin R. Wilson (W.B. Eerdmans, 1989), p. 21.
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