Gentiles and the Great Commandment: An Argument for Torah Observance

 

Rembrandt_Jesus_Preaching_525As the story goes, when the Bishop was asked what he thought of sin, he answered with simplicity and conviction that he was against it. With equal conviction and simplicity I can say, when asked what I think of Torah observance, that I’m for it. Nowadays, however, some of the Ministries active in the world of Messianic Judaism seem to have developed the tendency to relegate the non-Jewish believer in Messiah to a Noachide position qua observing the commmandments. This means that according to these Ministries non-Jews are only obligated to fulfil the Seven Commandments of the sons of Noach. If this position is correct, then it inevitably follows that non-Jewish Christians are not bound by what is called the Great Commandment in the Apostolic Scriptures. This commandment — to love G-d above all things and your neighbour as yourself — is found in the Written Torah. Its first part is found in the Shema (Dt. 6:4): “Hear O Yisrael: HaShem our G-d, HaShem is One: and thou shalt love HaShem thy G-d with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might”. This is the first part of the Great Commandment, as is confirmed by our Messiah in Mk. 12:29-30. The second part is found in Lv. 19:18: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am HaShem”. This part is confirmed by Messiah in Mk. 12:31.

 

It is clear from the context of the verses in Dt. 6:4 and Lv. 19:18, that both parts of this Great Commandment are only for Yisrael. As to the first part this is immediately evident, because it is directly linked with the Shema Yisrael and the confession of the Shema is specifically directed to Yisrael. Nobody can apply the Shema to him- or herself, by reciting it, if he or she is not included in the community of Yisrael. As to the second part it is equally evident, because the commandment to love the neighbour is part of the stipulations introduced in Lv. 19:2 by the words: “Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Yisrael, …etc”.

 

The two parts of the Great Commandment are not contained in the Noachide Commandments however, as is clear from the Bible (in Gen. 9) as well as from later Rabbinic tradition. Thus we can safely conclude, that if it is true that non-Jewish Christians have the position of Noachides and not of Israelites, then they are free from this Great Commandment, and are neither obligated to love HaShem with their whole hearts and above all things, nor to love their neighbours as themselves.

 

But this conclusion is in clear conflict with the many admonitions found in the Apostolic Scriptures to love G-d and one another, e.g. in 1 Jn. 2:4-5, 10; 3:23-24; 4:7-12, and especially 4:20-21. These verses are not only for Jewish believers, and the love required there is certainly not of a lower nature than that demanded in the Torah, for love here is strongly related to perfection, and is thus of the highest nature, as is equally true of the nature of love in 1 Cor. 13. Therefore it cannot be a tenable theological proposal to relegate the non-Jews to a position of Noachides — in so far as the mitzvoth are in view — which practically means to exclude them from the Covenant Community of Yisrael.

 

If Gentile believers are to express their recognition of eternal salvation — which is by means of G-d’s love made excessively manifest in Messiah Yeshua — by thankfully returning love to G-d and by loving their neighbours according to the demands of the Great Commandment (who would doubt this?), then the other commandments must necessarily follow and apply to them as well. For the other commandments are nothing else but the specifications and determinations of how to express this fundamental commandment of love in a proper and righteous way. It is impossible to fulfil the Great Commandment without the help of the further specifications of the other commandments.

 

Relegating the non-Jewish Christians — especially those who have developed a genuine love for the mitzvoth — to a Noachide position may on the long term be spiritually dangerous, ultimately destructive of their Christian faith, and a seducing influence leading them to accept a secular lifestyle. For the Noachide commandments, viewed in isolation from the remainder of the Torah, are completely insufficient to express the spiritual richness the Gentiles have been made partakers of in Messiah Yeshua our Lord.

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6 Responses to “Gentiles and the Great Commandment: An Argument for Torah Observance”


  1. 1 Joel Usina January 10, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    Nice post, great points. How much do you think, if at all, that one reason why people advocate that Gentiles are “bound” only to the Noachide laws is a result of a Jewish pride?

  2. 2 messianic613 January 11, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    There is earnest Jewish concern about Gentiles who try to be Torah observant. This concern is about two things: 1) the preservation of Jewish identity; and 2) not to lay a burden on the Gentile.

    As to 1), Torah observance for Gentile believers seems to blur the distinction between Jews and Gentiles, and thus to negate the word that Israel is to be a peculiar and distinct nation before HaShem. Of course it is possible to answer this difficulty by saying that Israel is not dissolved by the presence of Torah observant Gentile believers, but preserved and extended within a Greater Israel. Yet this answer doesn’t seem to satisfy those whose concern is Jewish identity. The question for many Messianic Jews is not generally about the preservation of an extended Israel, composed of Jews and Gentiles; it is specifically about the preservation of the Jewish nation within the Messianic Community. This is a problem that is not easy to solve, or even to analyze. For some this is not a real problem at all, while for others this is the one overriding problem of Messianic Judaism and even the one great real obstacle for Jews to accept faith in Yeshua.

    As to 2), For the Rabbis Torah observance is only a real possibility within the context of Judaism. This is simply because only Israel is commanded to obey the Torah, and Israel, according to the Rabbis, is defined as the Jewish people. Further, A Gentile who takes Torah upon himself causes his own death, because of the almost complete social isolation he has to deal with. So if a Gentile definitely wants to live according to the Torah, he has to be integrated and adopted in normative Judaism. This however is exactly the impossible thing for a Gentile Messianic believer — at least since the second century — because normative Judaism excludes belief in Messiah Yeshua. One of the main reasons why belief in Yeshua is excluded is because it is conceived of as a threat for maintaining the distinctive call of the Jewish people, as explained above in 1).

    One of the main objectives of this website is to investigate whether there is a tenable solution for this problem, a solution that is in harmony with the teachings of the Apostolic Scriptures. This problem is comprises many parts and aspects. To mention one: What is the status of children of Gentile descent in the Torah Observant Messianic Community? Are they home-born Israelites, and thus Jews? Or are they perhaps Israelites in a general sense, and is the distinction between Jew and non-Jew no longer relevant for describing their identity? Or are they perhaps just Gentiles?

    • 3 Bart De Wilde September 4, 2015 at 8:22 am

      Much depends – I think – on a good understanding of Eph. 2:19 that describes the position of the gentile in Yeshua as a part of Israel. The KJV here uses the word ‘fellowcitizens’ where the Greek word is “sumpolitai” (from “sumpolitès”, a “fellow citizen”, as it can be translated): this term seems a well defined expression of a legal-political status. As I understand it, this is foundational for our position as a believer in Yeshua, because it describes how we are a part of Israel (as the chosen nation/people in legal political meaning and context and thus subject to the same legal principles that apply to the ‘saints’ and ‘people of G-d’. It is a position that few can accept because of the consequences and the irrelevance of the churches in their final existence. But reading the Book of Revelation, we do not see any mention of any church whatsoever. On the long term it seems for the A’mighty that churches do not exist for him; there is at least some moment churches do not have any spiritual role anymore as a ‘church’. The Apostolic Scriptures are very clear here, even in their vision for the future. G-d has only one people. This enforces my understanding of Eph. 2:19

    • 4 Messianic613 September 7, 2015 at 6:02 pm

      Basically I agree with you, as is clear from the article, but I would like to point out that there are also some serious difficulties in this position. If we accept that the meaning of the term ‘sumpolitai’ is ‘fellow citizens’ on the legal and political level, we seem to plunge into uncharted waters as soon as we draw the logical consequences from this meaning. First and foremost, it is not at all clear in the Apostolic Scriptures how this inclusion is related to the obligation of the mitzvot, the commandments of the Torah. The question at what time after his inclusion through faith and baptism a Gentile is expected to be fully responsible for fulfilling the commandments is never even addressed. From the internal logic of baptism, which marks our cleansing from the world of sin, it can hardly be accepted that a person is permitted to continue in a sinful way of life (cf. Rom. 6:1) after his water immersion. But if this is correct, it would imply that a new believer must be circumcised without delay (if male) and is bound to obey the whole Torah immediately after his baptism. It is impossible, however, to demonstrate this from the AS. These consequences may be logical, but they are nevertheless speculative, because there’s no scriptural warrant for them. They simply lack the support of the texts.

      Many Messianics take the position that the Apostolic Decree of Acts ch. XV permits a considerable time-frame for the new Gentile believers to learn the commandments and grow in observance before being fully accountable. During this time-frame transgressions would not count as sins. This assumption too, however, is completely speculative. It has to be completed by another assumption, which is seldom made explicit, that this time-frame has to be concluded at some moment. The difficulties here are particularly salient in the cases of circumcision and Sabbath keeping, because these are commandments the transgression of which comes with the penalty of being cut off from Israel. Now how can it be that by the same act (of faith and baptism) that a person is included in Israel, he also enters a new sinful situation (with the threat of being excluded) because he isn’t circumcised?

      I think that the necessity of making such speculative assumptions, which go far beyond the explicit teachings of the texts themselves, plus the difficulty of dealing with them in a satisfactory manner, has soon led the post-apostolic generation of believers to the conclusion that terms like ‘sumpolitai’ cannot have the political and legal meaning you ascribe to them, and that the inclusion in Israel signified by them has therefore to be understood as some kind of spiritual inclusion.

      I’m interested in your perspective on these difficulties.

    • 5 Bart De Wilde September 7, 2015 at 8:11 pm

      I can understand your reasoning. But the first rule in reading a bibleword or text is the simple and plain meaning of it. The conclusion you make on the meaning of the word as a ‘spiritual inclusion’ I thus in fact do not understand. Why ? because the whole bible and even Torah is spiritual : at the same time it was here on earth and very ‘legal’ in the commandments and the political legal structure of the Kingdom of Israel. Even the Kingdom is spiritual and not from this world – says our Master King Messiah – , yet it is obvious that it also will appear as a very political structure under His reign in Jerusalem, when He will appear. I admit I didn’t foresee the possible options you make in your reasoning and I didn’t study on it.

      My first reaction was : ‘well, in Judaism it is never or/or. I want to say that in Judaism even a minor growth in holding the commandments or a minor spiritual change is counted as extremely valuable in a process of growth toward your spiritual destination as human being. This should counter a lot of your presumptions. My second thought was on the ‘gerim’ in torah and in tanach: it is obvious they are considered in Jewish thought as a part of Israel : jewish translations of this word are ‘converts’. And we have some example in torah in the multitude that went out of Egypt together with Israel. The torah is very clear that torah applies on every ger. Timetables are not specified. That is true. But this also can mean that people get the time to grow and to learn. And so we come to the story of Acts XV, as a time frame for people on their way to Judaism as a choice.

      So what can I conclude ? First and foremost it is a spiritual inclusion. That is for sure, but this does not mean it is not legal intended in meaning or concept. Why should Paul otherwise use this word ? The subject of his treatise is about inclusion and the (legal spiritual) position of the gentile (and his approach always was in execution of the halacha meant in Acts XV, in contradiction to the traditional jewish position that the pharisees took – and actual traditional judaism still takes). And the bible itself seems to give here a timetable such as the standards in Acts XV. Maybe this sounds not so traditional orthodox (in actual jewish orthodoxy) but in this we only have the halacha we read in the AS. (Maybe there is more historical evidence in customs or so, but I do not know of it).

      This reaction is – as I said – a very first reaction : I cannot say I have studied on the possible consequences of my thought about Eph. 2:19 you gave in your reaction.

    • 6 Messianic613 September 8, 2015 at 6:54 pm

      The concept of ‘spriritual inclusion’ may sound problematic when we consider that the Torah is spiritual. The spiritual nature of the Torah, however, doesn’t take away that there is a big difference between being included in Israel by natural birth or a legal procedure (giyyur) on the one hand, and inclusion by faith in Yeshua on the other. This difference is directly related to the nature of the Assembly of Messiah. For although this Assembly may be part of Israel, just being part of Israel is not its essential nature. For no Jew is a member of the Assembly of Messiah by simply being an Israelite. Legitimate membership of this Assembly is only by faith and water immersion in the name of Yeshua (i.e. baptism). This implies that faith is a precondition of membership. This is not the case with membership of the nation of Israel. When a Jew is born he has no faith at all and yet he is a full member of the chosen nation. Membership of this nation is primarily by natural birth. While it is clear that the Torah demands faith, yet faith is never a precondition for being an Israelite.

      The fact that a confession of faith and water immersion are necessary for membership of the Assembly of Messiah makes clear that this Assembly is a special thing which has its own essence and definition. This doesn’t exclude the idea that this Assembly is part of larger Israel. But if it is part of Israel, it is a special subset of the nation, a distinct body with its own definition. No-one who doesn’t have conscious faith in Messiah can be among the legitimate members of this body. This is also apparent from the biblical practice of baptism by immersion, following upon a confession of faith. Baptism of babies is excluded and unbaptized children are no members of the Body of Messiah.

      These considerations elucidate the problematic nature of the assertion that Gentile believers are made members of the nation of Israel in the legal and political sense just by faith and baptism. For if no Jew is a member of the nation of Israel by his faith, why should a Gentile be? If faith is irrelevant to the question whether a person is Jewish, then why should it be relevant for the inclusion of a Gentile? Rabbinic Judaism has a clear position on this question, which is that while faith may be a motivating force for a Gentile to become Jewish, this faith is and remains irrelevant for his Jewish or non-Jewish status. The only thing that can make him a Jew is the legal procedure of giyyur. Faith alone has no legal effects. In a similar way as for example a person cannot become British by adopting British culture or even the Anglican faith, but only by a legal change of nationality, he can only become a member of the Israelite nation by a legal procedure, not by an act of faith.

      A possible answer to this difficulty would be to say that Gentiles are spiritually made part of Israel by their faith and that their legal and political inclusion is by the rite of water immersion, because by being baptized in the name of Yeshua they are added to the believing remnant of Israel, the company of the baptized Jews, which is a subset of the Israelite nation. And since being added to a subset logically entails being added to the main set, it could still be true that by faith and baptism a Gentile is spiritually as well as legally and politically included in the nation of Israel.

      But this doesn’t solve the original problem of how this inclusion is regulated in the Apostolic Scriptures. This is not just a problem of growing in observance but of sin and transgression. If the Gentile believer has to obey the commandments of the Torah from the moment of his baptism, he would do better to postpone his baptism until he is circumcised and has learned to live a Torah observant life. To do so however, would surely be at odds with the Apostolic custom to administer baptism immediately after acceptance of the faith.

      If there is a special trajectory for the Gentile to learn the commandments (and to get circumcised), then, as I said before, this trajectory has to be formally concluded at some well-defined moment. Otherwise the person remains in a halachic limbo and his status remains ambiguous before the congregation and eventualy a court of law, including a messianic court. If the Apostle Paul emphasizes that blatant sinners should be excommunicated, as is clear from the incident in Corinth, where a person married his stepmother (in I Corinthians, ch. V), why should this punishment of excommunication not apply to a Gentile who remains uncircumcised, since the punishment for this negligence according to the Torah is being cut off from the household of Abraham (Genesis, ch. XVII). So the question arises: At what moment after his baptism does being uncircumcised become a mortal sin for a Gentile man who is a member of Yeshua’s Assembly? If a person is not to be excommunicated for this, then why is he to be excommunicated for other public sins, such as open adultery or stealing?

      If, because of these arguments, one admits that the inclusion of Gentiles has to be regulated and cannot be left to the spiritual development of the individual, the next problem arises, which is that nothing about such a regulation can be found in the AS, not even a trace of it. So the additional difficulty is here where to find the authority to do these things.

      The policy in many congregations is simply to leave these matters to the judgement of the individual in question. This is problematic because it is subjective and undermines the congregational moral and religious discipline. And it has the additional effect that the status of Gentiles is never really clear. And thus it seems that the very doctrine of the equality between Jew and Gentile in Messiah is not upheld after all. If the blessings of the Torah are for the Gentiles the punishments must be also.

      In Rabbinic Judaism there is no problem of Gentile inclusion, because as long as a Gentile remains a Gentile he is simply a Noachide and not obligated to Torah observance. If he decides to convert to Judaism, he is fully trained in the mitzvot as a candidate convert and during this time he is still a Noachide. Only after becoming indistinguishable in observance from an orthodox Jew he is admitted to the mikvah in order to become a Jew. So he never enjoys the status of being included in Israel before being fully observant (and being circumcised). It is the messianic position of inclusion by faith, before being (circumcised and) fully observant which creates the typical difficulties of messianic “One Law” theology.

      These difficulties are as many reasons for the emergence of Bilateral Ecclesiology and Divine Invitation Theology, that is the teaching that the Gentiles halachically remain Noachides, who can only observe the Torah on a voluntary basis, not by obligation. As is obvious, this teaching creates its own particular problems. One of biggest is how to maintain the unity of the Body of Messiah if the two people groups of which it is composed are called to completely different lifestyles.

      The historical solution to escape all these nagging problems was the decision of the Church to simply abandon the ritual aspects of the Torah. Only the moral commandments were to be followed. The ritual commandments were forbidden because of all the troubles and quarrels they caused. This solution certainly was the cutting of the gordian knot. But nevertheless, it worked, and the Body of Messiah remained unified for a long time.

      My own opinion is that the Apostolic Scriptures offer no solution for the problem in what manner exactly the Gentiles are included in Israel and how the Torah relates to them. This problem is the fundamental riddle of the New Testament. Solving it requires the adoption of many additional presuppositions which cannot be traced back to Scripture and may even be at odds with it. Every solution — whether it be the traditional Christian one or the typical ‘messianic’ ones of “One Law”, “Divine Invitation” or “Bilateral Ecclesiology” — creates new additionial difficulties. The only thing that results from this is that all these solutions are to be considered just as theological hypotheses. Practically this implies that we have to accept the existing diversity of biblical communities and churches, and have to admit that “One Law” theology is just one option among others, which cannot be demonstrated from Scripture. I know this is a meagre result. But to go beyond it requires forcing the evidence in favour to fit a particular view.

      In my impression “One Law” theology still remains the best option, despite its difficulties. The reason why I consider it the best option is because of its systematic theological coherence, not because it can be demonstrated to be the scriptural position, for it cannot. Its peculiar difficulties are in the practical details and the manner of implementation. The other options show deeper systematic and coherence problems. “Divine Invitation” is incoherent in itself, to the point of verging on the self-contradictory, while the Noachide or Bilateral option conflicts with the fundamental fact of the unity of the Body of Messiah, which is also a systematic incoherence.


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