Is the Gospel Still to the Jew first?

“But all these things, so far as meaning that Gentile Christians are now the truest sort of covenant members, means that Gentile Christians owe the Jews an incalculable debt, cognate indeed with the debt they owe the Messiah himself, the Jew par excellence whose casting away meant reconciliation for the world. And the debt must be discharged in terms of the continuing mission to unbelieving Israel; the very Gentile mission itself has this is one of its sidelong purposes.”-N.T. Wright.

Introduction

I grew up in a large Jewish community here in Columbus, Ohio. The mainline demolition that I was birthed in sat between two Orthodox Jewish synagogues. I attended countless Jewish holiday events, weddings, and numerous Bar  Mitzvahs. My daily exposure to Jewish culture continued throughout my youth and into my college years At age 24, I had never before met Jewish people who believed in Yeshua (Jesus).  I was  invited by a friend to a messianic congregation led by a Jewish believer.  For the first time, I heard the powerful and convicting message of salvation  taught from the Book of Matthew. So here I was as a nominal Christian hearing the Gospel from a Jewish person who believed Jesus was the Messiah.

Mission in the Bible

After coming to faith I started reading and studying the Scriptures. I began to see the pattern of mission in the Bible. The relationship between Israel and the nations has always been something that has been on my mind for the last 15 years or so. I have been involved in outreach efforts  to Jewish people and have taught classes on messianic apologetics. But why even care about reaching Jewish people for the Messiah? After all, is not the Gospel for all people? I will offer some reasons why I think the Gospel is still  “To the Jew First” (Romans 1:16).

First, let’s look at the calling upon Israel:  Israel was supposed to have an inward focus in that parents were expected to repeat the stories of deliverance to their children (Ex. 12:24-27; Deut. 6:4-9; Isa. 38:19): “One generation commends your works to another; they tell of your mighty acts. They speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty, and I will meditate on your wonderful works” (Ps. 145:4, 5). The account of God’s goodness was to be passed on from each generation to the next. “Tell your children and grandchildren” (Ex. 10:2) is God’s crucial instruction.

Second, the purpose of Israel was not to be a blessing to herself. Therefore, through her witness, the world will either be attracted or repelled towards the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The entire promise to Abraham in Gen 12:3 exhibit’s God’s plan to bless the nations.  Therefore, the Messianic blessing  is for all the world . All  peoples on all the earth – 70 nations at the time- would be beneficiaries of the promise-(Gen. 12:2–3; cf. 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). This was  repeated to Isaac (26:4), and reaffirmed to Jacob (28:13-15; 35:11, 12; 46:3) and Moses  (Ex. 3:6-8; 6:2-8). Remember, the election of Israel was for a universal goal which is the redemption of humanity. Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright says:

Genesis 1-11 is entirely occupied with humanity as a whole, the world of all nations, and with the apparently insoluble problem of their corporate evil. So the story of Israel, which begins in chapter 12, is actually God’s answer to the problem of humanity. All God’s dealings with Israel in particular are to be seen as the pursuit of God’s unfinished business with all nations. Old Testament Israel existed for the sake of the nations.-Christopher Wright, Knowing Jesus Through The Old Testament, Second Edition, pg 46.

God called Israel to an ethical distinctiveness (Lev. 11:44, 45; 18:3; Micah 6:6-8).  They were to be committed to a holy life, because only in this way could they live to the glory of God and His name, and attract people to Him. In other words, they were called to be a light to the nations.  Also, the temple in Jerusalem will be the mega-world center for true worship (Isa. 2:2) and everyone will come there and learn how to worship the true God (Isa. 2:3, 4; 56:2-8; 62:9-11).  “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In those days ten men from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, “Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you” (Zech. 8:23).

Also, we see in Jeremiah 1:5, this prophet  is chosen by God, not simply as a prophet to Israel, but as  prophet “to the nations.” Other prophets like Jonah or major writing prophets, addressed twenty-five chapters of their prophecies to the Gentile nations of their day (Isa. 13-23; Jer. 46-51; Ezek. 25-32). So the point is that while Israel was called to have an inward focus, they have an external calling. This is why it should be no surprise that in Matthew’s opening chapter, he says,”The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham “(Matt. 1:1). The Messiah is not only of Davidic descent, but will bring fulfillment to the Abrahamic Covenant.   Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ mission to help Israel fulfill it’s calling in the following passages:

“Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10: 5-6)

“ I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”  (Matt 15: 24)

However, we see at the end of Matthew that Jesus commands his followers to bring the nations into God’s redemptive plan (Matt 28:19).

So given that the Messiah is called to be the ideal representative of His people, His mission is also to be a “light to the nations.” We see the following in Isa. 49:1-7:  The Servant of the Lord is a chosen instrument  by the Lord (1–3). The Servant glorifies the Lord before Israel and brings back the remnant of Israel ( 5–6). He has calling to all the nations (Gentiles).  Kings and princes shall see and bow down  to the Servant (vs. 7). Yet, for the sake of the glorified name of the Lord, this Servant also suffers (vs 4), being despised and abhorred by Israel (vs 7).  In relation to Jesus’ messiahship, while a remnant believed in Him, what is more significant is that Christianity now the home of 1.4 billion adherents. Sure, large numbers don’t make a faith true. But another traditional view is that the Messiah will spread the knowledge of the God of Israel to the surrounding nations (Isa.11:9;40:5;52:8). Are there any other messianic candidates that have enabled the world to come to the knowledge of the one true God other than Jesus?

So always remember  that the Abrahamic Covenant was prophetic. In this sense, there are several aspects of the covenant such as land promises, etc. But as far as Gentiles, they are supposed to receive spiritual blessings, but ultimately these were fulfilled though one specific “seed” of Abraham—the Messiah.

Also, given Israel’s calling it should be no shock that in Ephesians 2: 11-3:6, the Gentiles recipients are addressed as those who were formally without the Messiah. They were “aliens from  the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise\, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2: 12). So Israel was already near (Eph. 2:17), but the good news is that now along with Gentiles they even brought closer to God (Eph. 2:18).

What About Romans 1:16: “To the Jew First”

“For  I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is  the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew  first and also to  the Greek. For in it  the righteousness of God is revealed  from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (ESV)

Many Bible scholars agree that understanding Romans 1:16, 17 as the key  to understanding the rest of the book of Romans. But does  Paul mean the gospel was formerly, or once brought to the Jews, but now it is for the Gentiles? Is this view possible? In Romans 1:16 the Greek word for first is proton. As Dr. Michael Rydelnik, Professor of Jewish Studies at Moody Bible Institute writes,

“If Paul had meant ‘formerly’ or ‘earlier’ he would have used the Greek word “proteron.” The same word for first (proton) is used non-historically three times in Romans: …tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek… (Rom. 2:9,10), and First of all (chiefly, NKJ ), that they were entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom. 3:2).

Grammatically, the entire verse is in the present tense. There are three verbs: unashamed, is and believes. All are in the present tense. The gospel is, not was, but is the power of God, it is to all who believe, and it is to the Jew first. The idea that the Good News was “first for the Jew and then for the Gentile” implies that the Good News is no longer for the Jew (i.e. “they had their chance”). Obviously, this cannot be true, for to this very day Jewish people are still coming to faith in Jesus.  Remember, Paul was writing to the Jew first, not regarding a past activity, but as his present and active ministry (compare Acts 13:46 with 14:1). He was not looking back on the first century advance of the Good News, but stating it as an ongoing principle for the future flow of history. Even as the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul’s ministry was always to the Jew first.  (1)

After all,  we see Paul going to the Jew first in The Book of Acts. Paul goes to the synagogue first in Salamis (13:5), Pisidian Antioch (13:14), Iconium (14:1), Thessalonica (17:2), Berea (17:10), Corinth (18:4) and Ephesus (18:19 and 19:8).

Is the Return of Jesus Contingent on the Repentance of Israel?

As far as Christians and Messianic Believers, depending on one’s eschatology, some Christians think Jesus will bring the physical or earthly aspect of the reign of God in the future. It is evident that Jesus did inaugurate the kingdom of God. However, he didn’t do this physically but spiritually. Thus, Jesus spoke of a mystery form of the kingdom (Matt. 13:11) that is taking place between His first and Second Coming. Jesus now offers an invisible, spiritual reign through a new birth to both Jew and Gentile that will last throughout eternity (John 3:3-7; 18:36; Luke 17:20-21). And once again, depending on  one’s eschatology, some Christians have concluded that Jesus corrected the view that there will be a restored Israel in the future.  I should note that  Craig Evans says:

Did Jesus intend to found the Christian church? This interesting question can be answered in the affirmative and in the negative. It depends on what precisely is being asked. If by church one means an organization and a people that stand outside of Israel, the answer is no. If by a community of disciples committed to the restoration of Israel and the conversion and instruction of the Gentiles, then the answer is yes. Jesus did not wish to lead his disciples out of Israel, but to train followers who will lead Israel, who will bring renewal to Israel , and who will instruct Gentiles in the way of the Lord. Jesus longed for the fulfillment of the promises and the prophecies, a fulfillment that would bless Israel and the nations alike.  -Craig A Evans, From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation

Jesus spoke about the relationship between Israel’s repentance and their response to him  in the following text:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’”-Luke 13: 34-35

A similar text is seen in Matthew 23: 37-39:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  See, your house is left to you desolate.  For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Notice the emphasis on the article “until.” Here, it could not be clearer that Jesus says the Jewish people will not see him again and cry out to Him until there is genuine belief on their part.

Another text that  is important to the concept of Israel’s restoration is seen in Peter’s sermon in  Acts 3:19-21:

“But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out,  that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.”

Here, the word for restoration is “apokatastasis” which is only seen in this text. There is also a similar theme in Acts 1:6 when Jesus is asked about “restoring” the kingdom to Israel.  The points is that the Messiah is in heaven and his reappearance to rule and reign can be expedited by Israel’s repentance.

Ironically, while the same themes about the condition of Israel and the coming of the Messiah (for the first time) are seen in the Rabbinical literature.

I was recently going back and reading a book called Jewish Christian Debates: God, Kingdom, Messiah which features a dialogue between Bruch Chilton and Jacob Neusner. In it, Neusner says:

What is most interesting in the Talmud of the land of Israel’s picture is that the hope for the Messiah’s coming is further joined to the moral condition of each individual Israelite. Hence, messianic fulfillment was made to depend on the repentance of Israel. The coming of the Messiah depended not on historical action but on moral regeneration.-pg 172.

Now this is very interesting! Does moral regeneration sound familiar?

As Carl B. Hoch, Jr says in Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, “It is absolutely necessary for a person to be born again in order to enter the kingdom of God. In the central passage in the New Testament about the new birth ( John 3 ), Jesus tells Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, that he will not enter the kingdom of God unless he is born anew. The alternation between singular and plural Greek pronouns in the passage shows that Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus both personally and representatively. The need for the new birth is not only true of Nicodemus, but of the entire Sanhedrin, all Jews, and, by extension, all people.

THE NEW BIRTH allows us to have the supernatural cleansing from sin that God through the Spirit effects on all who believe on his Son. This water-Spirit combination is a reflection of Ezekiel 11, 36, and Jeremiah 31. In these Old Testament passages God’s Spirit is viewed as doing a revolutionary work in the lives of God’s people in the new covenant age.

So what’s the point?

The Apostle Paul showed he had a tremendous burden for the Jewish people (Rom. 9:1-5), (Rom. 10:1), and calls upon the Church to provoke Israel to jealousy (Rom. 11:11). For Paul, the resurrection was God’s stamp of approval on Jesus as the promised Messiah of Israel (Rom. 1:3-4). Paul also understood that since the Gentiles have received the blessing of knowing the Jewish Messiah, they now have the responsibility to take the message of salvation back to Israel. Therefore, Christians of all denominational backgrounds should show interest in sharing the good news of the Messiah with the Jewish people. It is not an issue of “covenantal “ vs “dispensational” theology. It is an issue of what holds up exegetically. Why don’t churches have any focus on reaching Jewish people for the Messiah? This is a question I have pondered for a long time. Having taught on these subjects, I have concluded the following:

a. The Church doesn’t read not teach the Bible left to right. In other words, most Christians are discipled  by reading the New Testament first and then they might eventually get the what they call “The Old Testament” which really translates as some outdated, or  inferior book. This is tragic given Jesus and Paul grew up reading  the Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible). Hence, there was no New Testament at that time. So when Christians read the Bible this way, they tend to not see the unity of the Bible. This needs to be corrected.

b. The Church tends to view Israel as something that only matters in their eschatology (the study of end-time events). For many Christians, when they think of Jesus, they see no relationship between Jesus and Israel. The only thing that seems to matter is getting “saved” and asking whether one is on their way to heaven or hell. This is tragic because it misses the mark on the entire Biblical narrative.The first step in restoring a correct understanding is to understand the role of Israel’s election in the Bible. Now I can almost anticipate that any mention of election conjures up Calvinist thinking and whether one is considered one of the ‘elect’ or not.  But that’s not what we are talking about here. Christians need to remember that Israel is about a people group, not just a piece of a puzzle in some future eschatological drama. In other words, Jewish people are just like anyone else. They need to hear about their Messiah and place their faith in him.

c. Anti-Semitism: As much as I won’t’ spend time calling any Christian anti-Semitic, the reality is that it is still alive in the Church.

d. A misunderstanding of  the relationship between Jesus and  the Pharisees. Sure, Jesus was hard on the Pharisees. But do we really understand the issue of polemics in that time period? It seems like the Pharisees are the beating ground for so many Christians.  Not to mention it is the misreading of the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees that  has  laid the groundwork for anti-Semitism in the Church. If you can get access to it, try reading the article called The New Testament’s Anti-Semitic Slander and the Convention of Ancient Polemic by Luke Timothy Johnson. It may change your perspective a bit on this topic.

e. Many Christians assume Jewish people are so hard to reach for the Messiah! No duh. Just read the prophets! God told some of them to go and speak to the Jewish people. And he told them they would be rejected ahead of time. The best thing to do with any Jewish person is to build relationships of trust. Never assume anything. Always follow the example of our Lord by asking questions. And always remember that all Jewish people come to faith just like anyone else. They must be open to the truth and God’s Spirit must open their eyes (2 Cor.4:4-6). Over the last several years I have taken a direct approach to talk to Jewish people on a large college campus. I have spoken to many, many, Jewish people. You would be  surprised how many Jewish people have never heard one clear presentation as to why Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.

Conclusion

So my question is the following: Does your church do anything to support Jewish missions? Does your church ever talk about the issues I just mentioned? If the Gospel is still “to the Jew first” can the Church be obedient to the pattern of mission in the Bible and ignore some sort of visible outreach to Jewish people?

Sources:

1. This section was taken from JEWISH EVANGELISM AND DISCIPLESHIP, Article 3 of 13: GOD’S UNCHANGEABLE PLAN by Sam Nadler at http://messianicassociation.org/ezine14-sam.God%27sUnchangeable%20Plan.htm?vm=r&s=1

The Resurrection Meets Skepticism – Gary Habermas, PhD

A Look at Messianic Prophecy: Who is the Prophet of Deuteronomy 18:15-18? Part One

 

Introduction

Anyone who has studied evidential apologetics will see that many apologists have laid a great emphasis on messianic prophecy as one of the keys to demonstrating Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. One thing that is left out of these discussions is that when it comes to prophecy, it is not always predictive. The Greek word for fulfill is πληρόω (pleroo) – which has a much broader usage than “the prediction of an event.”

For example, in Matthew 5:17- Jesus says he came to “fulfill” the Law and the Prophets. In this passage “fulfillment” has a sense of embodying, bringing to completion, or perfecting. Fulfillment is one of the main themes of the New Testament, which sees Jesus and his work bringing to fruition the significance of the Jewish Scriptures. However, let’s look at a case of predictive prophecy. For a prophecy to be predictive it must meet the following criteria:

1. A biblical text clearly envisions the sort of event alleged to be the fulfillment.

2. The prophecy was made well in advance of the event that was predicted.

3. The prediction actually came true.

4. The event predicted could not have been staged but anyone but God.

5. Clear Prediction: Is the prophecy publicly available with a reliable text and evident interpretation?

6. Documented Outcome: Is the prophecy documented by publicly available facts?

7. Is there evidence for it in world history?

8. Proper Chronology: Is there empirical evidence that is available presently and publicly to document that indeed the prophecy does predate its fulfillment?

It must be remembered that the strength of this evidence is greatly enhanced if the event is so unusual that the apparent fulfillment cannot plausibly explained as a good guess.[1]

One of the most pivotal texts that speak about the first coming of the Messiah is Deuteronomy 18: 15-18:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” (Deuteronomy 18: 15-18).

What is the purpose of a prophet?

A prophet (Heb. nabi) was an individual who received a call from God to be God’s spokesperson, often connected with some crisis that was about to occur, and then announced God’s message of judgment and/or deliverance to Israel and the nations. The word “prophet” occurs over 300 times in the Hebrew Bible and almost 125 times in the New Testament. The term “prophetess” appears 6 times in the Hebrew Bible and 2 times in the New Testament. (2)

In Deuteronomy 18:15-22 and Deuteronomy 13:1-5 , God listed five certifying signs by which a true prophet of God could be recognized:

1. A prophet must be an Israelite, “from among [his] own brothers“ ( Deut. 18:15 ) (Balaam is the exception that proves this rule).
2. He must speak in the name of the Lord, “If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name” (Deut. 18:19).
3. He must be able to predict the near as well as the distant future -”If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken” ( Deut. 18:22 ).
4. He must be able to predict signs and wonders (Deut. 13:2).
5. His words must conform to the previous revelation that God has given (Duet .13:2-3).(3)

The Context of the Passage (Deut. 18:15-22)

God, through Moses, warns Israel to remain separate from the evil practices of the surrounding nations (Deut. 18:9-12) and instructs Israel how to tell the difference between a “true prophet” and a “false prophet.” After God had warned Israel about attempting to get supernatural information from bogus pagan sources ( Deut. 18:9-14 ), he announced that he would “raise up for them a prophet like Moses from among their own brothers” (v. 15). Any prophet who speaks in the name of the Lord and his words do not come true is a “false prophet.” God has not spoken through him.

In the same context God tells Israel He will send prophets who will truthfully speak for Him. What’s more, Israel can someday expect a prophet who will be “like Moses,” that God will specially raise up. The word “prophet” is in the singular, so it must refer to some individual prophet in the future. God would “put his words in the prophet’s mouth and the prophet will tell the people everything God commanded him” (v. 18). The wider context (Deut. Ch. 16-18) describes the offices of king and priest. Therefore, this would support the text (Deut. 18: 15-19) being about the Messiah because He is the head of both those offices.

Some critics like to point out that Deut. 34: 10-12 which says that “No prophet has arisen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” Does this prophecy mean the end of prophecy had come? Certainly by the time of the final completion of the Book of Deuteronomy and the Pentateuch as a whole, there had been no prophet who had arisen in Israel like Moses. But this does not mean there is not someone who will come in the future to fulfill the prophecy. After all, if prophecy had ended than why is it in the time of Jesus many Jewish people seem to be looking for the prophet of Deut. 18:15-22? For example:

The people said, “When they heard these words, some of the crowd began to say, “This really is the Prophet!” (John 7:40)

Now when the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus performed, they began to say to one another, “This is certainly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” (John 6:14)

John the Baptist began to preach, he was asked, “Are you the Prophet?” (John 1:19-23).

Also, Peter refers to Jesus as the prophet of Deut. 18:15-18:

And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’ And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days.—Acts 3: 17-24

To see Part Two, Click Here:

To see Part Three, Click Here:

Sources:

1. Points 1-8 are pointed out in R. D. Geivett and G.R. Habermas, In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case For God’s Actions in Human History (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press. 1997), 221-223.

2. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. “Prophet, Prophetess, Prophecy,” featured in Walter Elwell, Bakers Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1996), 641.

3. Ibid.

Craig Evans on “Is the Bible Reliable?”

Here is an interview with Craig Evans on “Is the Bible Reliable?” Note that in this interview here he says:

“Archaeology usually clarifies things. If Jesus didn’t exist and the Gospels are fictions, then how is it that they get so much right? Why, at every place where they can be tested, do we find they are talking about real people, real events, real things that we can unearth? If we are talking about a nonexistent person who grew up in a nonexistent village, as some people actually allege, there was no Nazareth. Yet when we dig there, we find it. Historians are very interested in that. If you have an old document, one of the first tests is to ask, Does it really reflect life back then as we know it? If it does, the historian takes it seriously. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the book of Acts—these are the basic narrative books of the New Testament. They talk about real people, real events, real places, and the archaeologist can show that; so a fictional, nonexistent Jesus makes no sense of the actual hard data we have.”

Interviewer: You mention solid first-century evidence of Jesus. What does it consist of?

Evans: “Well, it says He goes to a synagogue at a certain place. The place exists, and there is a synagogue there. He talks about being in a fishing boat with His disciples and crossing the Sea of Galilee. We have pictures of fishing boats and we actually have a fishing boat that probably was old and out of service in the time of Jesus; it would hold the disciples. So what we find is that every time the Gospels say something, it coheres with the way it was. You also have sources outside the Bible talking about Jesus. Historians know who He is. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, explains to his readers who He is and what happened to Him and how He was crucified by the Roman governor. If you are not willing to listen to those sources and take them seriously—Christian ones, Jewish ones, pagan ones—then you are not interested in doing history. You are not open-minded at all. You really don’t want to hear what the evidence has to say.”

If you want to go deeper on the kinds of archaeological  finds on the NT, see Peter S. Williams examines the historical reliability of the New Testament in the light of the findings of archaeology.

 

Yes, Christianity must own its Jewish origins and how it leads to a healthier church!

Exploring Our Hebraic Heritage: A Christian Theology of Roots and Renewal  -     By: Marvin R. Wilson<br />

Over the years, I have had the privilege of teaching on Jewish backgrounds of the Christian faith. I am not part of the Hebrew Roots movement.  But I think it is significant that when Marvin Wilson released his book last year called Exploring Our Hebraic Heritage: A Christian Theology of Roots and Renewal, David Neff, who is former editor of Christianity Today, said the following:

“As a historical religion, Christianity must own its Jewish origins and live up to the best of that heritage. Marvin Wilson, a pioneer in evangelical-Jewish relations, makes a compelling argument for renewing Christian faith by recovering our Hebraic heritage. If only there were more like him, we could have a healthier church.”

So what about the renewal aspect that Neff mentions here? Let’s take a look at three lessons Christians can learn from the Jewish roots of their faith.

#1 Jesus and the Name of God

Regarding the disciples prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13), Jesus says:

This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,  your kingdom come.”

Regarding the hallowing of God’s name, Scot McKnight says:

“At no place have Christians been more insensitive to Judaism that when it comes to what Jesus believes and teaches about God. In particular, the concept that Jesus was the first to teach about God as Abba and that this innovation revealed that Jesus thought of God in terms of love while Jews thought of God in terms of holiness, wrath, and distance are intolerably inaccurate in the realm of historical study and, to be quite frank, simple pieces of bad polemics. The God of Jesus was the God of Israel, and there is nothing in Jesus’ vision of God that is not formed in the Bible he inherited from his ancestors and learned from his father and mother” “Countless Christians repeat the Lord’s Prayer. When Jesus urged His followers to “hallow” or “sanctify” the Name of God (Matt 6:9), many are unaware of what that may have meant in Jesus’ day- in part, because Christianity has lost sight of God’s awesome splendorous holiness. A good reading of Amos 2:6-8 discusses this issue. “Reverencing the Name of God” is not just how Israel speaks of God-that it does not take the Name of God in vain when it utters oaths or when someone stubs a toe or hits a finger with an instrument -but that God’s Name is profaned when Israel lives outside the covenant and by defiling the name of God in it’s behavior” (Jer 34:15-46; Ezek. 20:39; Mal 1:6-14). God’s Name is attached to the covenant people, and when the covenant people lives in sin, God’s Name is dragged into that sin along with His people. So, when Jesus urges his followers to “reverence,” or “sanctify” the Name of God, he is thinking of how his disciples are to live in the context of the covenant: they are to live obediently as Israelites.” -Paul Copan and Craig A. Evans. Who Was Jesus? A Jewish-Christian Dialogue. Lousiville: KY.Westminster John Knox Press. 2001, 84-85.

Discipleship

The Hebrew word for disciple is “talmid.” A talmid is a student of one of the sages of Israel. A disciple is a learner, or pupil. When we decide to repent and turn to our Lord for the forgiveness of sins, we have to realize we are now on a new journey. The Gospel is a message for the here and now- not just the future. We have to learn how to live out our faith in the world around us. A disciple (in the New Testament sense) is someone who is striving (by God’s grace) to be consistent follower of Jesus.

The goal of the Christian is to imitate our Master.

Discipleship takes a commitment between the discipler and the one being discipled. For those that say they don’t need discipleship, you are setting yourself up for failure. Sorry to be so blunt. But there is no such thing as a Long Ranger Christian.

Discipleship is not getting any easier in the world we live in. In an overly sensate culture, people need to be constantly stimulated and have a hard time focusing on something such as discipleship. In a world that wants instant results, self- sacrifice is tough sell. Part of the problem is that churches preach a Gospel that promises that Jesus will fix all our problems. And when things get tough, many people bail out. A long-term commitment to our Lord which involves self denial (Luke 9:23) is hard to swallow for those that have been told The American Dream is the way of happiness.

The Shema

In Mark 12.28-34 we find a scribe asking Jesus a serious question, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” Jesus replied by saying, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Jesus then added a second commandment (from Leviticus 19.18) when he said, “The second is this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Here we see the Shema is the central creed for Jesus! Jesus is quoting from Deut. 6:4-9:

 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

“Shema Israel, Adonai elohenu, Adonai echad.” These six words begin the Shema (pronounced “shmah”), three sections of Scripture repeated twice daily to remind each Jewish person of his or her commitment to God (Deuteronomy 6: 4– 9; 11: 13–21; Numbers 15: 37– 41).

In the Tanakh (the acronym that is formed from the first three parts of  the Hebrew Bible: Torah (the first five books of the Bible), Nevi’ im (the  Prophets), and K’ tuvim (the Writings), the Hebrew word for heart is  “leb,” or “lebad.” While the word “heart” is  used as a metaphor to describe the physical organ, from a biblical  standpoint, it is also the center or defining element of the entire  person. It can be seen as the seat of the person’s intellectual, emotional,  affective, and volitional life. In the New Testament, the word “heart”  (Gr.kardia) came to stand for man’s entire mental and moral activity, both the  rational and the emotional elements. Therefore, biblical faith involves a  commitment of the whole person.

In Jewish thought, in the Shema, hearing is directly related to taking heed and taking action with what you’ve heard. And if you don’t act, you’ve never heard. Hence, in Deut.: 6: 4-9, we see who our God is and how we should respond to him. It should be a holistic commitment towards him. We love our God with our emotions, our actions, our entire beings (including our minds).  How might me love God with our minds?

First, as John Piper says in his essay on Faith and Reason:

Paul said in Ephesians 4:18: “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” In other words, at the bottom of human irrationality and spiritual ignorance is hardness of heart. That is, our self-centered hearts distort our reason to the point where we cannot use it to draw true inferences from what is really there. If we don’t want God to be God, our sensory faculties and our rational faculties will not be able to infer that he is God.

In 2 Corinthians 3:14, Paul says the mind is “hardened” (epōrōthē). In 1 Timothy 6:5, he calls the mind “depraved” (diephtharmenōn). And in Romans 1:21, he says that thinking has become “futile” (emaraiōthēsan) and “darkened” (eskotisthē) and “foolish” (asunetos) because men “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). In other words, unrighteousness disorders the capacity to see the truth. The corruption of our hearts is the root of our irrationality.

We are an adulterous generation. We love man-centered error more than Christ-exalting truth, and our rational powers are taken captive to serve this adulterous love. This is what Jesus exposed when he said, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” In other words, your mind functions just fine when seeking out a partner in adultery, but it cannot see the signs of Christ-exalting truth.”

Note: You can download Piper’s book THINK right here.

As Christ followers, we are called to not fall into the same traps that Paul warns his audiences here.

Conclusion

I hope these tips help. If you can, check out the Wilson book. It is a great read.

How Did Paul Receive the Gospel? A Look at a Possible Contradiction?

Paul’s letters are dated between AD 40 and 60. These are the earliest records we have for the life of Jesus. Therefore, to jump to the Gospels as the earliest records to the life of Jesus is a tactical mistake. While he did not follow Jesus from the beginning, Paul is still considered an apostle, though “abnormally born” and “the least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:8-9). His turning to Jesus happened though a dramatic revelatory encounter (Acts 9: 1-7). His first years as a follower of Jesus in Arabia remain a mystery. Three years later he went to Jerusalem to visit; this is where he saw Peter and James. Paul’s account of his calling in Galatians 1:15-16 is similar to what Jeremiah’s says about his own calling:

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. (Gal 1:15-17)

The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,  before you were born I set you apart;  I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. (Jer.1: 4-5).

A Possible Contradiction in Paul’s Conversion?

Even though it is clear that there is an early record about the creed of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, we now must ask if this implies a contradiction with Galatians 1: 11-12. When we come to Galatians 1:11-12, Paul defends his ministry by discussing the manner of how he received the Gospel. We can compare the two texts here:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal 1:11-12).

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Cor. 15:3-8).

So what is the truth here?  Paul says in Galatians:1-11-12 that there is absolutely no human mediation or tradition involved— he received the Gospel by divine revelation. But  what about the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 which seems to indicate that there is an element of human mediation or tradition? How do we respond to this?  First, in both 1 Cor. 15:3 and Galatians 1:12, the word “received” “παραλαμβάνω” means to receive something transmitted from someone else, which could be by an oral transmission or from others from whom the tradition proceeds. Carson, Moo, and Morris provide a possible solution:

The word used here, [παραλαμβάνω (parelabon) ] I passed on [paralamano, “receive”], corresponds or language that the rabbis used to describe their transmission of traditions. When Paul seems to be asserting is that the elements of his gospel teaching, such as the truth of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-5), were handed down to him by other people. Some have found a contradiction in these claims of Paul, but a resolution is not hard to find. We need to distinguish between essence and form.  The essence of the gospel, that Jesus of Nazareth was truly the Son of God, was revealed to Paul  in one life changing moment on the Damascus road. The form of the gospel, however, including the historical undergirding of the gospel events, certain phraseology used to express the new truth, and doubtless many other things, were passed on to Paul by those before him.[1]

[1]D. A. Carson, D. J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction To The New Testament; First Edition  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2002), 220.

The First Question in Discussing the Existence of God

Photo: View of a sky and road

How do we know God exists?  Over the years, when I have been asked this question, I used to just jump to an argument for God. I would sit down and try to explain it in detail to the individual. I have now decided to take a different approach and back up: I am convinced more than ever that the first question in the discussion is “How should we approach the existence of God?” or, ” What method should we use?” I find 90 % of the people I talk to have never taken the time to think about this question. Granted, it is not as if churches or the local university (unless it is a philosophy of religion class)  teaches on a topic such as this.

Now I know that when  you ask a Christian, Jewish person or Muslim, and Mormon as well how they know what they believe is true, they might just say, “I have faith.” This should cause us to stop and ask if that is an adequate answer. It probably won’t go very far in a skeptical and pluralistic culture. So in this post I want to discuss some of the various ways we can approach the existence of God. I am well aware that there are other methods as well.

#1: The Revelatory Approach

The skeptical issue in our culture mostly enters into the religious dialogue in the following way: “In the case of God, who isn’t some physical object but a divine being, what kind of evidence should we expect to find? There is a tendency to forget that the Bible stresses that sin can dampen the cognitive faculties that God has given us to find Him. Therefore, sin has damaging consequences on the knowing process (Is. 6:9-10; Zech. 7:11-12; Matt. 13:10-13). Thus, people are dead, blinded, and bound to sin.

Christianity stresses that  the God of the Bible is capable of giving a revelation to mankind through a specific medium. One of the most important themes of the Bible is that since God is free and personal, that he acts on behalf of those whom he loves, and that his actions includes already within history, a partial disclosure of his nature, attributes, and intensions.  Revelation is a disclosure of something that has been hidden– an “uncovering,” or “unveiling.” There are three things are needed for a revelation to take place: God, a medium, and a being able to receive the revelation.

The mediums God uses in the Bible are general revelation (Creation; Psalm 19:1-4; Romans 1:20 Conscience; Rom. 2:12-15); Special Revelation: physical appearances of God (Genesis 3:8, 18:1; Exodus 3:1-4 34:5-7 ) dreams (Genesis 28:12, 37:5; 1 Kings 3:5; Daniel 2 ) visions (Genesis 15:1; Ezekiel 8:3-4; Daniel 7; 2 Corinthians 12:1-7), the written Word of God (Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:16-17); Prophecy (Isaiah 41:21-24; 42:8-9), and most importantly—Jesus (John 3:16; 14:9; Colossians 2:9; Heb. 1:1-2), and Messengers (Acts 10:30-33).

But why the need for revelation? First, we need to know the character of GodHence, we need a clear communication to establish the exact nature of God’s character. Who is God and what is He Like? Also, we need a revelation to understand the origin of evil. Thus, we need to be educated concerning the reasons for where we are at as a human race. Furthermore, without a clear revelation, people might think they are the result of a blind, naturalistic process instead of being created in the image of God. And without a clear revelation we wouldn’t know our destiny.

The skeptic constantly assumes that if they could just see God directly or if God would give them an unmistakable sign that He is there, they would bow their knee and follow Him.  Sadly, this is misguided on several levels. God declares, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).  However, there seems to be other texts that indicate  people did see God. Even in Exodus 33:11 Moses speaks to God “face to face.” Obviously, “face to face” is a figure of speech which means they were in close communion or conversation.

Also, in Genesis 32:30, Jacob saw God appearing as an angel. But he did not truly see God. In Genesis 18:1, it says the Lord appeared to Abraham. Obviously, there are other cases where God appears in various forms. But this is not the same thing as seeing God directly  with all His glory and holiness. It is evident that people can’t see God in all His fullness (Exodus 33:20). If they did, they would be destroyed. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God and he shows the world who God is (Heb. 1:1).

Let me expand on the miracles/prophecy issue a little bit: There seems to be a pattern of how God works in the history of Israel. Every time he is doing something new in their midst, he confirmed what he was doing through a prophet. Signs are used to provide evidence for people to believe the message of God through a prophet of God.

#2: Historical Arguments/Prophecy

Challenges to the Revelation Argument

There is no doubt going to be challenges to the revelation argument. After all, the Bible is considered to be God’s revelation to mankind. However, The Quran, The Book of Mormon, and other holy books are considered to be The Word of God. Who has it right?  The late Christopher Hitchens said:

Since all these revelations, many of them hopelessly inconsistent, cannot by definition be simultaneously true, it must follow that some of them are false and illusory. It could also follow that only one of them is authentic, but in the first place this seems dubious and in the second place it appears to necessitate religious war in order to decide whose revelation is the true one.[1]

Historical Arguments/Prophecy

The objection by Hitchens shouldn’t be discarded. For the follower of Jesus, there is the call to “make disciples of the nations” (Matt.28:19). Any attempt to reach out to a lost and needy world will result in several encounters with people from a variety of spiritual backgrounds. Many Christians can be surprised to find out that many people from non-Christian backgrounds are incredibly sincere about their faith. Unfortunately, sincerity is not a test for truth. Many people have been sincerely wrong about many things. Almost all the people I have encountered from religious backgrounds think they have “true” revelation. And they are just as fervent and committed to their beliefs as devout Christians are. There is no doubt that religious experience shouldn’t be taken lightly. However, the issue of religious experience brings up an interesting point in apologetic dialogue. Which revelation is true? What god is the individual encountering?

John P. Newport sums up the issue rather nicely:

No sane person tries to accept as authoritative revelation from God all writings which are self-declared to be such. However eager we may be for harmony and tolerance, we cannot be intellectually honest unless we face the fact that there is a real contradiction between conflicting truth claims. As we reflect on how we are created in the image of God, we need to remember that we are creatures of both will and mind, of faith and reason. We are called to think as well as act and feel; therefore our faith will always have a rational element to it.[2]

But even though I wholeheartedly agree with Newport, I still think it is fine to follow what Randy Newman calls the “plausibility factor.”

Isn’t it reasonable to believe that a God who created us could, if he wanted to do so through the vehicle of inspired writing?” In other words, does it make sense that God should provide a revelation of Himself to humanity? [3]

If we go ahead and say “yes” to the following question, we then can ask if God has revealed Himself in the course of human history, when and where has He done this? We can look at religious texts and see if they pass the tests for historicity.  Thus, we enter the domain of historical apologetics. Remember, all revelatory claims have to be taken on a case by case basis. We need to evaluate the evidence for each claim in its own historical and religious context.

For example, former atheist Anthony Flew said the resurrection of Jesus was the best attested miracle claim that he had seen. Another aspect of the historical argument is the argument from prophecy. Fulfilled prophecy does take a good bit of exegetical work and we don’t want to jump into it too lightly.. See more here: : The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case  for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

#3: God or Theism as an Explanatory Hypothesis?

C.S. Lewis said that “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (see The Weight of Glory). To apply what Lewis says, we might utilize what is called inference to the best explanation. The inference to the best explanation model takes into account the best available explanation in our whole range of experience and reflection. For example, when we look at these features of reality, which provides a more satisfactory explanation:

  • How do you explain the Origin of the Universe?
  • How do you explain the Mathematical Fine-Tuning of the Universe?
  • How do you explain the Terrestrial Fine-Tuning of Planet Earth?
  • How do you explain the Informational Fine-Tuning of the DNA molecule?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Mathematical Laws?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Logical Laws?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Physical/Natural Laws?
  • How do you explain the Origin of the First Cell?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Human Reason?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Human Consciousness?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Objective Morality?
  • How do you explain Ultimate Meaning in Life?
  • How do you explain Ultimate Value in Life?
  • How do you explain Ultimate Purpose in Life?

Using God as an explanatory explanation is seen in philosophical theology or natural theology arguments. The book The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology does a fine job in handling this issue. To see a short example of this approach online see,  The Return of the God Hypothesis  by Stephen C. Meyer or Paul Copan’s God: The Best Explanation

An example of this approach is seen in a book like A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the  Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt.

#4: Pragmatic Arguments?

Many people might ask why I would bring this one up. The reason I mention it is because about 70% of people I talk to about Christianity object to it by saying ” I don’t understand what difference Christianity would make in my life?” This is a very popular approach. In this argument, many people say their religious beliefs have been tried and tested out in the reality of life. Thus, they think their beliefs correspond to reality because they do make a difference. In other words, “Christianity works because it is true!”

This does have some merit. After all, if the Christian faith is the one true path, it should make a radical difference in the reality of life. The challenge of this argument is that in some cases, it seems Christianity doesn’t work. Christians have challenges in their families, work related issues and relationships. However, just because Christians don’t always reflect the character of Jesus and don’t always show the difference it makes, this doesn’t mean Christianity is false. Furthermore, the Gospel is not “What Can Jesus Do For Me?” but instead a call to die to ourselves and follow the Lord (Luke 9:23).

It could be that the person is not under healthy teaching/discipleship or living in sin.  So the pragmatic argument can be a tricky one. Everyone knows Christians have done some amazing things for the world (see here), but we also have some inconsistencies.

#5: Existential Arguments

The latest book by Clifford Williams Called Existential Reasons For Belief in God is another approach to why people believe in God.

According to Williams, for some people logic and reason are dominant and in others emotion and satisfaction of needs are dominant.

Williams mentions 10 existential needs from his book:

  • the need for cosmic security
  • the need for meaning
  • the need to feel loved
  • the need to love
  • the need for awe
  • the need to delight in goodness
  • the need to live beyond the grave without the anxieties that currently affect us
  • the need to be forgiven
  • the need for justice and fairness
  • the need to be present with our loved ones

Conclusion:

There are several other approaches to the existence of God.  Given humans are emotional, intellectual, and volitional creatures, there is no “one size fits all approach.” I hope that has caused you to go further in the question of God’s existence.

Sources:

  1. Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2009), 97-98.
  2. John C. Newport, Life’s Most Important Questions: A  Contemporary Philosophy of Religion (Dallas, Texas. Word Publishing. 1989),  452-453
  3. Randy Newman’s Questioning Evangelism, pg 127-128.
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