In recent years, I’ve had quite a bit (too much) interaction with several groups within what might be called a “Messianic movement” or a “Hebrew roots movement.” Just as you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, don’t just a movement by its name. After all, the Christian faith does have Hebrew roots, just as we do follow the Messiah, but these movements are a distortion of the Christian faith, a change from “the faith.” (cf. Jude 1:3).
This Hebrew roots movement (HRM) has steadily grown in influence here in the US and (apparently) in the Mid-West in particular. My hope is that those with a genuine New Testament (NT) faith will see the warning signs, “danger, danger, Will Robinson…”
Traditional Messianic Judaism tends to be more Christ oriented, and usually centers around people who trace their ethnic heritage to the Jewish people, but they’ve come to faith in Jesus. At the same time, one cannot truly talk of “Messianic Judaism” in any kind of unified way. Just as there are divergent “Christian” faiths, so too this “movement” is not monolithic. Many Jews who have accepted Jesus as Messiah are attempting to live as the first church did. They blend the cultural traditions with the grace of the NT. They observe the Sabbath and other holy days but celebrate them through the lens of Christianity.
On the other hand, many who were not raised in the Jewish culture are seeking to return to the old religious system under the Law, or at least the parts they choose. If this is for cultural enrichment and they see the beauty of how God used Israel to bring the Messiah for the world, then I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with it, HOWEVER (and this is a major dividing line) if they are seeking to show that one MUST observe the Law and MUST worship on certain days in certain ways or MUST observe specific holidays (and not others) they have stepped beyond Christianity (cf. Col. 2:16-20).
So, here are a few “Danger, Danger” signs to look for:
Putting faith in extra-biblical (usually Jewish) books. The book we (Christians) use for authority is the Bible, in particular, we use the Greek New Testament.
The Bible was written in 3 languages. The OT was originally composed/compiled in Hebrew (and some of the more apocalyptic bits are in Aramaic, the Babylonian language), and the NT was originally recorded in Greek, the universal language at the time of Christ, and the first language of most people (including Jews) in the first century.
NO, the NT was not originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic. Yes, it’s possible that Jesus spoke in Aramaic or Hebrew when talking with his disciples, but in large gatherings like the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus would have surely addressed such a crowd in Greek. We now know (even since the 1990’s) through archeology that Greek (not Hebrew) was the primary language of JEWS in the first century. Just at the reasonable/rational level, it is not logical to think that the NT would have been written in anything but Greek. When the NT was written, it went to areas almost exclusively outside Judaea in what is called the “diaspora” and it was written to a church of increasingly Gentile/Greek background. Going beyond the rational level to the hard evidence… the earliest manuscripts are exclusively in Greek (end of discussion).
Their attempt is to cast doubt on the Bible that we’ve had for 2,000 years. They will tell you that there is a secret knowledge that you can’t understand because you’ve been brainwashed (but they were smart enough to figure it out). They will tell you that you can’t fully understand the NT until you understand the Torah (usually synonymous with the OT). I actually find the opposite to be true… one cannot understand the OT correctly until they understand the NT. I mean, how many Jews missed that Jesus was the Messiah? The answer is ALL OF THEM, even Peter denied Jesus. Now you mean to tell me, the HRM folks understand the Torah better than first century Jews apart from the NT? I don’t think so. The true tell of this is that they usually rely on Jewish Rabbis (even those who don’t believe in Jesus) for their interpretation of OT scriptures when they touch on NT concepts that they would like to change.
We believe in “progressive revelation” which means that God does not reveal the “whole ball of wax” all at once. In other words, the OT concept of God, the spiritual realm, the after-life, salvation, etc. was not as complete as the NT depiction. Now, they do not contradict each other, but God becomes more detailed as he has revealed himself in the Scriptures. There is a “progression” in the detail of our understanding of God and the things of God from Genesis to Revelation. The NT gives greater specificity to biblical concepts. This is why the Sadducees, who only read the first 5 books of the OT as their scriptures, had no belief in the afterlife, the whole idea of resurrection isn’t found there, but later books give greater detail.
Jesus brought a NEW and BETTER Covenant for those who would believe in him. ‘NEW’ Heb.9:15, ‘SECOND’ 8:7, ‘BETTER,’ 7:22.
Watch-out for anyone who advocates the necessity (or even possibility) of keeping the Law of Moses with all of the ordinances of the OT Law.
“The Law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:24-25). HRM is seeking to bring us back under the schoolmaster.
Christ is the end of the Law (the place where it was headed, the fulfillment of its goal) for righteousness to every one that believes. (Rm. 10:4); “The Law and the prophets were until John the Baptist (Luke 16:16); “The Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John. 1:17).
How we worship God through Jesus can look different in different churches, but when we begin to prescribe the following of specific days and festivals as “law” (so to speak) we’ve missed it… Paul warned of this “You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” (Gal. 4:10-11).
If we make an attempt to keep the Law from sinai and we focus on the observance of OT ordinances, then Christ has become no effect to us, no one can ever be justified by the Law. Paul says those that do this have “fallen from grace.” (Gal. 5:4).
Part of the problem is, as I see it, they seem to have the misunderstanding that modern Judaism, or even medieval rabbinical teaching, is essentially the same as Jewish religious life in the time of the NT. This is not true. In fact, Judaism experienced a practical “death blow” in the temple’s destruction by the Romans in AD70 and was, in a since, “reborn” afterwards. The pharisaical Rabbis who survived rebuilt their faith in a world with no temple.
Most HRM groups emphasize getting back to the “original” Jewish Christianity. This means that the Church has lost its true roots, including the fact that Jesus and his followers were Jews living in obedience to the Torah. Most HRM groups believe that every Christian should live a Torah-observant life. The ordinances of the Mosaic Covenant must, then, be the focus for a genuinely biblical lifestyle today, in the same way as it was for pre-NT Jews of Israel. Keeping the Torah includes Sabbath keeping on Saturday, Jewish feasts/festivals, dietary laws, avoiding “paganism” associated with Easter and Christmas (!!!), and looking at the Scriptures through a Hebrew lens. HRM teach that Gentile Believers have been grafted into Israel, this is why Believers are required to follow OT observances. The irony is, when pressed, they don’t see this as legalistic bondage, they do believe one must have a Torah-observant life to live a life that pleases God.
It is true that Jewish culture forms the background within which most of the Bible was written, and knowing more about that culture deepens our understanding of both the OT and NT. In fact, people getting together (Gentiles and Jews alike) to learn about and celebrate OT feasts can be very enlightening. These kinds of events can be a great tool to learn the way in which the Jews understood the teachings of our Lord.
Gentile Christians are not grafted into the Judaism of the Mosaic Covenant; they are grafted into the seed of Abraham (before the Law). Non-Jewish Believers are fellow citizens with the OT saints (Ephesians 2:19), but they are not Jews. Paul says this to “the circumcised (Jews) not to seek to be uncircumcised” and those who were uncircumcised (the Gentiles) “not to become circumcised” (1 Corinthians 7:18). There is no need for either group to feel they must become what they are not. Instead, God has made Jews and Gentiles into “one new man” in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:15). That means that it’s fine to follow Jewish tradition, and it’s also fine not to. What isn’t fine is to tell another that they must or must not!
The “new man” (of Jews and Gentiles) is what we call “the Church,” also called the “body of Christ,” so to make being Jew or Gentile of no matter (i.e. “neither Jew nor Gentile -Gal 3:27-29). There is ONE Lord, ONE faith, ONE baptism. If Gentiles are (as the HRM believe) grafted into Israel, then one group becomes part of the OLD man, not that they two become one NEW man (that’s just incorrect)
“But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”
Let me recommend some authors who might be able to paint a more accurate picture of first century judaism: Craig Evans, George Nickelsburg, Jacob Neusner, James D. G. Dunn, E. P. Sanders.
Let me further recommend two specific books regarding the relationship between the Law from Sinai and NT Believers:
- “Five Views on Law and Gospel” Stanley N. Gundry (editor)
- “The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology” Jason C. Meyer
We need to take Titus 3:9 to heart “avoid foolish controversies… dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” So, when someone seek to “dissent” from the established teaching and leadership of a church, and yet they seek to also stay as members of that church, THEY ARE IN THE WRONG. Read the next two verses (Titus 3:10-11) “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, HAVE NOTHING MORE TO DO WITH HIM, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” This was a major issue in Titus’ church and Paul has strong words about them. I believe the HRM are the same kind of teachers and so I agree with Paul (Titus 1:16) “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” (cf. Titus 1:10-16).
They advocate specific dietary restrictions and the observance of festivals.
It is perfectly fine to have a preference to abstain from particular foods or have dietary restrictions YOURSELF (or even as a church), but when you start to tell others what THEY SHOULD do, you have crossed the line and Paul says YOU are under demonic influence. (cf. 1Tim 4:1-5)
Take Paul’s advice (actually a command), avoid these people… Show them God’s love, offer them the gospel (the real gospel), but don’t be taken in…