The Jewish and Christian God

Jews and Christians have almost nothing in common except their God.  He is one and the same God. Jews believed they were chosen by God for special blessing, that this blessing was an inheritance due to their birthright, originating with their father Abraham, if they would only faithfully live by His Law (discussed, below).  They didn’t concern themselves with “going to heaven” (at least until the advent of their Pharisees in the first century BC), but were very concerned about their survival from hostile surrounding nations.  And so, to them, God would “save” them, His chosen people, from these earthly enemies.  But when they died, they were dead.

Christians, on the other hand, believe they are “saved” from God’s final judgment of creation by their belief in the life, message, atoning death and resurrection of their Lord Jesus Christ.  They believe that they die physically, but that they live on in the presence of their Savior forever.  Most Christians are taught that the Law given to the Jews has no claim on them – that they have “freedom in Christ” through their faith.  Some, probably a significant percentage if not a majority, believe that after death Jews who have not turned to Christ are sent, as punishment for this decision, to suffer in hell for eternity.

So how could His people be so different in their beliefs?  And how could there be such disdain of one for the other?  The purpose of this piece is to explore these questions, and to see if there is any room for a middle ground, based on what the Bible says.

In all fairness, the Jews have had a distinctly different experience with God than have Christians.  We begin by looking at their history of interactions with their God.

Israel and the Mosaic Law

“Who was Israel”?  The short answer is that Israel was that collection of people, then called Hebrews, who God redeemed from their enslavement in Egypt in approximately 1450 BC.  Many were descendants of Jacob, who had moved his family to Egypt from Canaan 430 years earlier in response to a famine, and at the invitation of his son, Joseph, then an official in Egypt.  But they weren’t all Jacob’s descendants.  By the time they left Egypt they were a “mixed multitude”, meaning there were foreigners mixed in among the descendants of Jacob.  But as was characteristic of Israel throughout their history, foreigners were readily accepted as long as they agreed to follow Israel’s laws and practices, including circumcision.

They were:

  1. Chosen by God for redemption from their oppression in Egypt and for blessing in their own land. (Exodus 6:2-8)
  2. Substantially descendants of Abraham, a man favored by God and judged righteous by Him (Genesis 15:6)
  3. Recipients of God’s conditional covenant at Mt. Sinai: that if they would faithfully adhere to each command in the Law, then God would be their God and prosper and protect them. (Exodus 19:5); to which the people agreed (Exodus 19:8).
  4. Recipients of God’s instructions in how to live their lives, in the form of God’s Law issued to them at Mr. Sinai through Moses (Exodus 20,21,22,23, etc.)

The Mosaic Covenant

Once God had rescued Israel from Egypt, He stated His intentions for them by establishing His covenant with them.

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people . . .” (Exodus 19:5).

Of course, no one could miss the condition: “if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant”.  Immediately, on hearing God’s offer and having little understanding at that moment what “obey My voice” entailed, Israel agreed:

“Then all the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do’ ” (Exodus 19:8).

They agreed.  But they didn’t commit.  Almost immediately thereafter, while Moses was on Mt. Sinai to receive the Decalogue written in stone by God, the people immediately gave up on him, and God, and did what came naturally – debauchery and idol worship.  And future apostasy was quickly assumed (Deut.29:4, Deut.31:29) to be their destiny as the Hebrews matriculated to Canaan.

What was the Law?

The Law, as recorded in the Pentateuch, consists of 613 rules for living.  (Hundreds and hundreds more were added over the centuries by priests and rabbis in what was called the “Oral Torah”.  This later was written down in the Talmud, following the destruction of 70 and 133 AD, of which there are two principal variants.)  We see in the law several categories of “what to” and “how to”.  After giving the Law God says that (assumedly under conditions of His covenant) “I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God” (Exodus 29:45).  God had been leading Israel in the form of flame by night and pillar of cloud by day.  But we soon learn that God had more to teach Israel about Himself as their Lord in their midst, and so commands them to build a “Tabernacle” (literally a dwelling place) for Him (Exodus 36:839:43) – a Holy (i.e. set apart) residence for His presence.

In the Law we see instruction after instruction designed to emphasize God’s holiness to the people, from the sacrifices to the multitude of prescriptions of hygiene required to offer them and live in the camp with Him, to the consecrations of blood for many of those sacrifices.  God was underscoring that He was God, their creator and sustainer, holy and set apart from them, but nonetheless their God with them — Elohim.

Then there were the ethical and moral commands, prescribing in great detail how residents in the camp were to deal with each other righteously, with their slaves, and with outsiders they might encounter.

There were the feasts/festivals (Pesach/Passover, Shavuot/Pentecost, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkoth and Yom Kippur) and Sabbath observances, many involving sacrifices and/or fasts.  Because of the huge number of commands to be followed, it’s seems quite likely that God had in mind requiring enough of these so that the average Israelite couldn’t go very long (at most six days) without performing some prescribed act of worship and thanksgiving toward his God.

In this respect, the Law for these first Israelites acted as a kind of “boot camp”, designed to instill in them a desire for the things of their God.  The modern military knows very well that if you want to produce a loyal, capable soldier, you must first break his innate will to rule himself, and then give him no time for anything other than learning and doing that which you prescribe.  The intensity of this indoctrination, coupled with the comradery of your brothers experiencing the same, grueling training, produces for all but the most head-strong a common bond of service and loyalty to one’s unit and superiors in a relatively short amount of time.  Perhaps God invented this tactic in the Sinai.

The point of it was to keep the people’s focus on God, His holiness, and His provision for them as the Giver of all things.

What Did God Want the Law to Accomplish in His People?

There is perhaps no better record of God’s expectations for a faithful Israel than Deuteronomy 10:12-22:

“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, [13] and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? [14] Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. [15] Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. [16] Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. [17] For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. [18] He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. [19] Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. [20] You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. [21] He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen. [22] Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the LORD your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven.

For all intents and purposes, this could be a passage from a New Testament epistle, or, in fact, from Jesus Himself.  But this isn’t a one-off revelation.  Other examples of God expressing His desire for His people include the following:

Psalms 24:3-6 (ESV) Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? [4] He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. [5] He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation. [6] Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah

2 Chronicles 7:14 (ESV) if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

Psalms 51:17 (ESV) The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Micah 6:8 (ESV) He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Deuteronomy 6:4-7 (ESV) Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. [5] You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. [6] And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. [7] 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.

These verses express what God wanted for Israel through their adherence to His Law. He wanted a loving, humble, faithful people. He wants the same today.

Israel’s History with the Law

Suffice it to say that Israel was unsuccessful in keeping the commands of the Law that God had given them.  But that was not their core offense.  Their failing in God’s eyes was that they abandoned Him.  Not only did they not love Him, they cared so little about Him that they were unbothered by flagrantly violating His laws.  In effect, through their behavior, they repeatedly expressed no interest in having anything to do with Him, ironically while keeping some parts of His ceremonial law, but directed at other gods (sacrifices on altars, etc.).  So in a very real sense, they voided God’s covenant with them.

The entirety of the history of ancient Israel is nothing if not an object lesson in the unrequited love of God for His people.  Throughout this history there emerges a pattern of disobedience, judgment by God, repentance by Israel, forgiveness and restoration by God, and repeat.  There is a kind of grinding, discouraging inevitability to the whole thing.  After one such episode, Hosea records God saying:

Hosea 5:15 (ESV) I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me.

In other words “I’m ‘outta here.  When you’re ready to truly repent, let me know.”  There would be 800 or so more years of this.  What Israel never did was ask God, in repentance, for a way out of themselves and their innate unrighteousness.

At this point it is good for us to step back for a moment and acknowledge that it wasn’t Israel, per se, that failed – that broke God’s covenant.  It was humanity.  God just chose the people of Israel to live out the experience of having their God live with them, reject Him time and again, repent, receive forgiveness, and fail yet another time.  No other people then or now would have done any better under the same circumstances.

It is based on this history that Christians, in particular, have concluded that God’s other primary purpose for the law was to convict Israel (and those observing them) of their natural inability to live righteous lives – lives of faith and obedience pleasing to God — without His assistance.

Here is where the great schism occurs, theologically, between Christians and Jews.

Jews, for a variety of reasons, particularly those thoroughly committed to the cultural routine of what remains of the law, are unable to see the message sent to them by their own history.  Instead they fixate on the promise to Abraham, Moses (even though broken), and their one-time “chosen-ness” by God.  In so doing, they reject the essential message of the Law, that they were not capable of achieving righteousness in the eyes of God through its adherence.  Had their hearts been changed, had they submitted individually and as a people to God’s reign in their lives, theoretically they could have attained that standing with God.

And so today, with necks as stiff as ever, they simply assume that, as in the past, one day God will return to them and vanquish their enemies, call them all back to Israel the land[i], rebuild His Temple and reinstate their prosperity and domain under His guiding hand, if only they are “faithful”.  The following quote from a Jewish website brings this thinking into clear focus:

Death is, indeed, an unavoidable fact of our physical existence on this earth, yet it ultimately gives way to the eternal life of the metaphysical, spiritual reality of G-d, to Whom we are attached in our souls and our spirit, by our deeds, when informed by Torah, and by the Holy Temple, G-d’s chosen place on our earth, where His Presence reigns and death has no dominion.

It’s somewhat baffling why any rationale reader of the Tanakh would draw this conclusion.  What would lead them to believe that their lives would be any more righteous under the return of God to the Temple than they ever were under similar conditions (e.g. say, with Moses or Joshua or the reign of David, or Solomon) the first time around?  In other words, they can’t they see that their “righteousness” is wholly inadequate apart from the righteousness of God Himself.  The can’t they see that they need God Himself within their lives to be pleasing to God.  It seems that Moses had it right in the beginning (Deut 29:4)

Enter the New Covenant

In the face of God’s enduring patience with Israel’s apostasies, it became clearer and clearer that the Mosaic covenant could not be everlasting, as it would simply have been an everlasting failure.  And, in case there is any question, the failure was not God’s.  No one familiar with this history could accuse God of being anything but patient, faithful and merciful.  The failure was wholly the peoples’.  Of course, it was never promised to be everlasting.  There were only God’s terms, often violated, and Israel’s initial verbal agreement. So God was well within His rights, and righteousness, to terminate the Old Covenant, and offer a new solution.

Jeremiah knew it would not continue forever and said so, even before the Babylonian expulsion (Jeremiah 31:31-34) as did Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:19-20, 18:31, 36:26-28) and others throughout the Tanakh.  Jeremiah records God’s new edict as:

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (ESV) “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, [32] not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. [33] For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [34] And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

This article is a wonderful survey of this passage and provides insightful exegetical evidence that what is being described here is something profoundly new, profoundly different than the Mosaic law, and something which will achieve the original purposes of the Mosaic law – a people in whom there is righteousness and reciprocal love.

Ezekiel was a bit more specific as to the mechanism by which the Law would be written on hearts, and the people would “know me”:

Ezekiel 36:26-28 (ESV) And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. [27] And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. [28] You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.

The New Covenant and Interrelated Prophecies

Clearly, the New Covenant is not eschatological: that is, it does not portend, or even imply, the end times.  The difficulty we have is that for Christians, the New Covenant was inaugurated by Christ, their Messiah, 2000 years ago: His resurrection and subsequent gift of the Spirit of God.  The Spirit is key to the Christian understanding, like Ezekiel’s, of the mechanism of implementing a widespread writing of the Law “on their hearts” and of bringing the people, in concert with Christ’s physical presence and teaching, to “know me”.  For them, Christ is the Messiah, called for (among many other places) in Isaiah:

Isaiah 9:6 (ESV) For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

So rather than just dealing with the Law, and its continued efficacy (or lack thereof) for current believers under a New Covenant, now we must push into the thicket of Jewish Messianic doctrine.  And that’s a very dense place to navigate.

The Jewish Mindset

One point before diving in, but an important one.  Jews don’t think about the things of God like Christians do.  The Jewish religious mind is quite pragmatic[ii] and ill-at-ease with deeply spiritual ideas – things like sin or the need for God’s mercy and forgiveness; things like the potential of the Spirit of God to inhabit His children; things like the righteousness of God as something to be sought after.  On this point I have found them to be extremely dismissive of the Apostle Paul.  His interpretation of their scripture in spiritual terms, rather than concrete, literal terms (e.g. the Temple as believers, Christ as High Priest, and his dismissal of the requirement of Law-following to establish righteousness for believers, Jewish and gentile believers together as “Israel”, or the “Israel of God”) earns only disdain. They are reverent, but apparently without faith that it will make any practical difference to them.

In the average Jew’s mind, life has no greater purpose than itself.  Their concern is safety and security, and overwhelmingly, the simple ability to live out the cultural traditions of their ancestors.  Many have at least an awareness of their history with YHWH.  And some in fact do look forward to a life with Him after death.  But most do not, and rarely give it a thought.  It’s not important.  Today, work, and relationships (and perhaps some social causes) are what’s important.  You live.  And then you die.  Do you go to “hell” for your sinfulness?  “Who knows?”  This quote from a Russian Jewish “elder” seems to capture a part of this mindset:

“A person should be willing to give up all his tomorrows for one today, so that he doesn’t end up wasting all his todays on one tomorrow.” –The Alter of Novardik

This is not to say that all Jews lack introspection: far from it.  Perhaps no other religious group has such an extensive body of written work on their theology and its questions, nor such a richly layered religio-cultural tradition.  However, as an outsider looking in, the effect of the Roman calamity, followed by centuries of persecution continuing to this day, seems to have inoculated the Jewish mind against any expectations for their relationship with YHWH, aside from the final Day.

Jewish Messianic Expectations

Here are some of the main expectations by Jews for Their Messiah:

Gathering all Jews from their Dispersed Locations

The Messiah (Meshach) will have something to do with calling/bringing the Jewish people back from their far-flung locations to the land of Israel.  What’s strange about this prophecy/idea is that a) different Jewish groups have different opinions about Messiah’s role, and; b) In scripture the person primarily responsible for the ingathering is YHWH (e.g. Deut. 30:1-5).  So either the two persons are conflated into one (with YHWH playing the role of redeemer – go ‘el), or the Meshach is simply an agent of YHWH, who helps complete the gathering.

Now obviously every Jew has not yet returned to the land of Israel, nor have they done so at any time following the split of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms and the assimilation of the northerners (Israelites) into Assyria and beyond, starting in around 740 BC.  It’s estimated that on the order of 40,000 people were exiled to Babylon following the fall of Judah.  Of those (and their descendants 70 years, or around three generations later) only around 50,000 returned.  Those who stayed did so for a variety of reasons.

What also needs to be considered is that for Jesus’ part, He is not recorded as ever even bringing the subject up.  The best opportunity for Him to do so is Acts 1:6.  Surely He was aware of what the disciples were asking Him – reestablishing the Kingdom of Israel.  But instead He answers concerning the coming Holy Spirit, to usher in the Kingdom of God among believers.

So to the Christian who claims that Christ was the Messiah who enacted the New Covenant, the Jew will point out that all Jews have not (literally) returned to Israel and therefore Jesus could not be their Messiah.

So here we have the first (of many, many) reasons the Jews reject Jesus as Messiah/Meshach.

The Meshach will set up the Government in the Ingathered Israel, of which He will be King

Isaiah 1:26 talks about the reestablishment of judicial governors in the land.  The establishment of the Messianic Kingdom is what the disciples in Acts were asking Jesus about.  Psalm 2 forecasts the Messiah as Son of God and King.  Other prophecies include Isaiah 2:2-4, Isaiah 9:7 and Jeremiah 23:5.

It is certainly true that at no time has Israel ruled the world, nor peace and justice prevailed throughout the world.  So, interpreted literally, as faithful Jews do, these present a serious stumbling block. An equally strong challenge comes from a widely held view in Judaism that the ultimate redeemer of Israel – the Moshia – is YHWH himself, and they’re not about to admit to that about Jesus.

There is another variant argument in the Messianic reign subject.  In 2 Samuel 7:15-16 Nathan prophecies that David’s reign and Kingdom “shall be established forever”.  So some Jews take this to mean that David’s descendent, the Messiah, the One who is to restore Israel, must establish an eternal line of Davidic Kings.  Later scholars came up with a range of durations for the Messianic reign from 3 years to 7,000(!) years, prior to the Day of the Lord.  Further, the predominant view of the Messiah’s nature (contrary to the YHWH version, above) is that he must be a man — not God — at least for the “King” role of the Messiah.  The Jewish argument here is that Jesus couldn’t have been the Messiah, since He’s dead, and left no human heirs.  So for those committed to a human Meshach, case closed.

We can safely conclude that Jesus didn’t make the grade with Jews as a King of Israel, nor did He throw off Roman rule, which is what everyone was looking for in reestablishing Israel as a self-directed nation.  This was, in fact, the rational for the presumed-Messiah-led Bar Kokba revolt in 133, resulting in the final devastation and genocide of Israel by the Romans.

The Meshach will rebuild the Temple (the so-called “Third Temple”)

There are no Biblical verses that say the Meshach will rebuild the Temple.  However, it is Jewish tradition, obviously reaching a fever pitch in the Rabbinic schools following the 70 AD destruction.  There is one verse that at least links the Messiah with the Temple, and that is Malachi 3:1.  Additionally, some Jews think the design of the yet-to-be-built 3rd Temple is documented in great detail in Ezekiel 40-45.

It is noteworthy that all Tanakh prophecies having to do with rebuilding a Temple have already been fulfilled including that of Ezekiel 40-45 as he wrote these specifications while still exiled in Babylon.  35 years later the 2nd temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem by Zerubbabel, but not to Ezekiel’s specification.  Why?  There’s much speculation, including that exiled Israel wasn’t repentant enough to deserve anything more than a copy of the 1st temple that had been destroyed.  Nevertheless, most Jewish scholars over the centuries have concluded that it is likely that the now-destroyed Temple will be rebuilt at some point before their Meshach appears, so that God can return to His “home” with His people and Judaism can be restored.  Thus the current interest in helping that happen in Jerusalem.

Ironically, one of the stronger cases for a rebuilt Temple is found in the New Testament: 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, where Paul describes a prerequisite for the Day of the Lord being that the “man of lawlessness” has to “take his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God”. If this guy is going to sit in the Temple, he needs a temple to sit in, and so many (Christians and Jews) believe a temple is yet to be built.

One possible interpretation of this is that when Titus’ forces ultimately destroyed the 2nd temple, symbolically the Emperor Vespasian, who called himself god, could be said to have “taken his seat” in the temple through the act of its desecration.  And certainly Titus himself would have walked through the temple’s ruins, if not sat in them, a short 9 years before he himself was named the Emperor god.

On this point, then, Jesus similarly doesn’t make the grade with Jews.  Never mind that their Tanakh doesn’t prophecy that He should have.  Perception is the only reality.  So if these are three of the key accomplishments the Jewish Meshach is expected to achieve, Jesus is Oh-for-three.

There are many other expectations for Meshach.  One is that his redeeming of the people back to the land will have nothing whatever to do with their souls – their salvation, as Christians understand it.  Another is that once Israel is restored, the whole world will worship Israel’s God (obviously that’s not happening today, nor has it ever).  There will be no more hunger, illness or death.  Weapons will be destroyed (“swords into plowshares”), etc., etc.

In overview then, the Jewish Messianic Kingdom looks in many respects like the second coming of Christ – the new heavens and new earth (Isaiah 65:17).  They seem to have conflated aspects of the first and second advents of Christ into one single redemption (as even His disciples did, as we saw earlier).

So for all the Messianic prophecies that Jesus fulfilled, it seems highly improbable that Jews with the Messianic vision cast by their Rabbis will ever, in faith, accept Him as their Meshach (though some have).

The New Covenant Enacted

Christians believe that Christ enacted the New Covenant.  They believe Jesus was the promised Messiah through whom the covenant was established.  As we’ve seen, obviously Jews do not.  They see the New Covenant as a yet-future promise to be fulfilled by their God, along with the rebuilding of a physical Temple in Jerusalem.  Given their objections, why should Christians maintain otherwise?

Arguments for Christ Inaugurating the New Covenant

I’m not going to spend time here on the Christ-as-Messiah arguments since, for Christians at least, they are well established in the New Testament.  For Jews, they haven’t meant anything for over 2000 years, so it’s not likely detailing them here would make any difference to them.

It is quite interesting, however, in looking at Messianic prophesies in the Tanakh, that Jews seem to have developed a permanent mental (or spiritual) callous against two key scriptures.

Daniel 9:26 says that the Messiah, the “anointed one”, will be “cut off” before the (rebuilt 2nd) temple and the city (Jerusalem) is destroyed.  Those destruction events happened in 70AD.  So it is quite bizarre that Jews continue to look to the future for a Messiah that must have appeared 2000 years ago (if God is not to be a liar), and not closely, nor with an open mind and heart, at their own scripture and history.

The second scripture is equally compelling.  In Matthew 28:26 (and Mark 14:24) Jesus declares to His disciples the inauguration of the New Covenant “in my blood” at His “Last Supper”.

Both of these scriptures the Jews seem to dismiss out of hand.

Jewish Rejection of Christ

The key misunderstanding of religious Jews is that they don’t need a savior – a redeemer — of the their souls, so that they can live with God.  They never have believed that.  To them, saving was and is from enemies, from persecution, from physical distress of all kinds. (In the etymology of the Hebrew for “save”( יָשַׁע) the underlying idea is being “freed into a wide place” (Pasha) from being hemmed in all around, as by an enemy.)  It was never being saved to God. And so, being unaware of their spiritual separation from God, they reject a Savior through whom their un-God-like-ness is not just atoned (i.e. paid for up to the present, as was done in the annual temple ceremony of Yom Kipur), but propitiated (i.e. removed entirely from God’s view past, present and future) through Christ’s sacrifice.

For most of Jewish history, they did not even entertain the idea of a life in spiritual unity with God.  The closest they got was the period of the Pharisees (100 BCE to 70AD), who believed that the Torah taught that life with God was offered in an afterlife (Olam Ha-Ba – world to come) in return for faithfully following God’s ways.

Because of this, Christ’s message of “eternal life” as co-“heirs” with Him of God’s Kingdom fell, and now falls, on deaf ears.

What they (and many others) don’t seem to understand is that Christ’s death and resurrection was God’s necessary plan for all that have been, are, and will be faithful to Him since the beginning.  Christ said “No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  Since this statement originated with Him, it was hardly necessary for Him to use hyperbole.  “No one” leaves no one out.  This means, of course, that it was by His sacrifice and resurrection that Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, the prophets and all the faithful heroes of Jewish history were justified to life with God as were those identified throughout the Tanakh as the “remnant” or the “faithful remnant”(2 Kings 19:30, Ezra 9:8).  These all lived in faith.  And God honored their faith and devotion to Him through the grant of eternal life with Him as a result of His Christ assuming their sin.

Enter the Spirit of God

The other thing they seem to have misunderstood is the New Covenant’s statement that God will “write my law on their hearts”, and that “they shall all know me”.  Since they can sit in their living rooms and not experience any special awareness of God’s Law or knowledge of Him in their heart, they fairly easily dismiss the notion that the New Covenant has been inaugurated.  For them it hasn’t happened.  So it couldn’t have happened.

Part and parcel of the Messiah’s incarnation, death and resurrection was His provision of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of God/Christ – to all who in faith believed God.  It is through the indwelling of the Spirit of God in the believer that His law becomes written on their heart, and that they are able to “know” Him.

Now these topics are worth a book (or books) in themselves, and so we won’t attempt to lay it out here. (I’ve written a bit on these subjects for Christians here and here.)  But suffice it to say that the purpose of having the Spirit of God within you is for you to be able to “live your life as God/Christ would live your life if He were you.[iii]  The result of God dwelling within you is that you know perfectly well God’s will.  And you know Him in the sense that He makes Himself and His will clearly known to you.  He knows perfectly His law and His intent for relationships both between ourselves and Him, and ourselves and our neighbors.  The believer who submits to God is thus animated by God Himself.  And given the opportunity through our submission, that’s exactly how He will guide us in our lives, if we only let Him.

It’s worth noting here that the idea of God’s Spirit being visited upon His faithful followers in the Tanakh is hardly unprecedented.  A few examples:

On the Seventy Elders (Numbers 11:25)

On Balaam (Numbers 24:2)

On Samson (Judges 14:6)

On Saul (1 Sam 10:6-7, 11:6, 19:23 )

On Saul’s messengers (1 Sam 19:20)

Amasai (1 Chron 12:18)

Azariah (2 Chron 15:1)

On Zechariah (2 Chron 24:20)

On Job (Job 27:3, 33:4)

On the Messiah (Isaiah 48:16, 61:1)

On His people (Ezekiel 36:26-27, 39:29, )

But for the average Jew, the possibility of God inhabiting their being has never been entertained as a real possibility.  It’s simply not a Jewish idea, despite this scriptural evidence, and so was and is a deal-breaker for many.  It is this context, that committed faith and trust in God is the criteria for God  to come to live within his follower by His Spirit, that most of Israel missed the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, and continue to ignore its availability to them to this day through Christ’s sacrifice.

Whither the Law?

This brings us back to a housekeeping detail – the status of the Mosaic Law.  What are believers to do with God’s law – that is, the written law, the 613 commands given to Moses (or the 411 that remain)?  Christ said:

Matthew 5:17-20 (ESV)  Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. [18] For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. [19] Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. [20] For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

So what does “fulfill” the law and the prophets mean?  This is where most people get lost – the Jew first, but also the Christian.  And when is it that “heaven and earth pass away” and “all is accomplished”?

For most Christians who are aware of this first question, they have been taught that the law is of no consequence to them after the resurrection of their Lord.  Their teachers are so driven to emphasize the power of the New Covenant that they are only too eager to completely dismiss “the Law” as having any bearing on the Christian.  True, they will still pay lip service to the Decalogue and remind their flock that they really aren’t to go out and murder anyone.  But their message of righteousness through Christ’s sacrifice and the Grace of God, not the Law, overpowers most serious reflective consideration.

To be honest, at the moment Christ said these words He had not yet consummated His mission.  In other words, He had not yet fulfilled it.  All was not yet accomplished.  Therefore He says, effectively, “God’s law is God’s law” and you are to keep (do) it and teach it.  Was He talking about each and every one of the 613 written laws, or was He talking about the intended purpose of the law (that we looked at earlier ) – the constant keeping of God’s will before our minds out of love and reverence for Him, and the specification of how one is to interact with people?

Obviously, Christ knew that in a few years there wouldn’t even be a temple at which a large portion of the laws (202 of 613) were performed.  It can be shown from scripture that “heaven and earth pass away” is Jewish eschatological language for the 70AD devastation of Jerusalem.  That was the end of the “present age” for the Jews – the end of life as they had practiced it for centuries. And for over a million, it brought death.  For followers of Christ, “all is accomplished” occurred at the Pentecost.  His was the final sacrifice.  Therefore, both events are now past tense.

So it made little sense for Jesus to command that rituals at the Temple continue to be carried out when there would be no Temple.  On this basis we can confidently, I believe, assume that His preeminent interest was in our acceptance of the commands having to do with love and reverence for, and service to God Himself, and love in our interactions with our neighbors and enemies.  As Christ elsewhere taught:

Matthew 22:34-40 (ESV) But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. [35] And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. [36] “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” [37] And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. [38] This is the great and first commandment. [39] And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. [40] On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.

There is an interesting line of thought in Rabbinic Judaism that sees (in the absence of their ability to keep all the Law) a narrowing over time to the pure essence of the Law; into fewer and fewer commands.  We find this teaching in the Talmud:

“Moses was given 613 precepts; of these there are 365 (thou shalt) in accordance with the number of days in the year, and 248 (thou shalt not) according to the number of bones in a man’s body…  Came David and cut them down to eleven…  Came Isaiah and cut them to six…  Came Micah and cut them to three…  Isaiah came back and cut them down to two…  Came Habakkuk and cut them to one, as it is written (Hab. 2:4), ‘The righteous shall live by faith’.”[iv]

Like Jesus, the rabbis over time seemed to distill the Law down to its essence — a matter of the heart.

Again somewhat predictably, there are different opinions on the applicability of the Law to believers today.  Many of those who identify with the “Hebrew Roots” movement, and certainly all observant Jews themselves, feel that keeping the laws having to do with new moons and festivals, and the dietary laws, are key to their faith.  If they’re Christian they say this practice gets them closer to the way their Lord lived.  And for observant Jews, it is just out of the question to abandon what’s left of the Law that has served as a way of life for well over a hundred generations.  This creates a tension for them where, not being able to keep all the law as it was prescribed to Moses, they are technically living in disobedience, physically unable to obey God as they understand that commission.

The ceremonial laws were designed to instill in their followers a submitted, reverent attitude toward God; to bring about thanksgiving for His provision, for His deliverance from past oppressors, and to remind those who keep them of His holiness (e.g. the unleavened bread).  Inasmuch as they achieve these goals today in the believer, they should be prized and kept by him.  As long as the adherent is under no illusion that law-keeping=faith, why not?

But, seen as an end in themselves, they totally obscure the gift of God in Christ, which is not just righteousness before God through forgiveness and propitiation of sin, but the provision of the indwelt Spirit of God when the believer trusts Him for their lives, by faith.  You would think that one who truly wanted to spend his life ritually honoring God would choose a path that results in God making His home in him, with His law written on his heart, and for whom being faithful in God’s remaining, available law would become natural, easy and routine through the guidance of His Spirit.  But, sadly, this is simply not the way most Jews see it today, for many of the reasons we’ve examined, or ever have at any time.

Where does that leave us as Christians?

To me, it’s actually quite simple.  Christ fulfilled the law and the prophets; He didn’t rescind it.  What this means is that He, through His perfectly obedient life, death and resurrection, has made available to all who accept Him as their Lord, the righteousness previously sought through obedience to the Mosaic Law.  But that’s not all He did.  He sent a Helper, God’s Spirit, to live in all those who believe Him/God and seek to live in obedience to Him, thus enabling all who in faith believe, to overcome.

The Mosaic Law was an expression of God’s will for His people.  It’s not like God suddenly changed His mind about how people should love Him or deal with their neighbors after He sent His Son.  He didn’t just decide that His law was no longer applicable.

What He did for us is to make available to us, His believers, the Spirit of God to live in us and write His law “on our hearts”.  What this means is that for one whose faith is fixed in God, that he will be transformed by God’s Spirit so that living within His will is the desire of his remade heart.  He wants to be faithful to God.  He wants to keep God’s commandments.  These things are his deepest yearning; not some burden to bear or “duty” to carry out.  He is remorseful when, on occasion, he fails to do so.

So if you have His Spirit living within you and His leading for you is to keep the Kosher laws, by all means, go for it!  If His leading is to observe the Hebrew calendar and its prescribed feasts and festivals, have at it!  You just have to understand that you should not expect your similarly indwelt neighbor to do the same thing, if he is not so led, nor look down on him if he doesn’t (1 Cor 10:31-33).

Conclusion

The Jewish God and the Christian God are God.  He is One in the same God.  His desire for His people has always been the same: for them to love and place their trust in Him by faith.  This was the message both of the Law and of His Son.  His gift of His Son made it possible for anyone who has placed his trust in Him to not only achieve the righteous requirements of the Law, through Him, but to live with Him now, and eternally.  But as I think we’ve shown, this disagreement isn’t as simple as we’re usually accustomed to framing it; as “works” Vs “faith”.  It goes far deeper than that.

 

 

[i] In fact God has called them back to the land for some centuries, certainly in light of the collapse of Rome, the Spanish Inquisition, and most recently with the establishment of the country of Israel in 1948.  However, most Jews chose not to respond but rather to stay put in whatever location they have landed.  If all Jews are ever to return to the land of their fathers, God is going to have to explicitly command it.

[ii] I find this pragmatism odd in the face of the richly symbolic and poetic expressions we find throughout the Tanakh.  Even the Hebrew alphabet and language itself is rich in nuance and layered meanings. Writers of the Tanakh were hardly literalists.

[iii] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, NavPress, 2012, pp 241

[iv] Makkoth 23-24.

 

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