Archive for November, 2011

On the Divine Prerogatives of Messiah

 

by Geert ter Horst

For many believers who once were Trinitarians, the discovery that Scripture doesn’t support the traditional Christian teaching that Messiah is G-d, has the initial effect of a certain disenchantment, an experience of their Lord and Saviour being relegated to a less exalted status. Oftentimes, their first reaction is: So Yeshua is a mere man?

Although this reaction is understandable, it is by no means correct. To describe Yeshua as “a mere man” is detrimental to his unique position. It evokes the wrong suggestion that — perhaps apart from his sinlessness — Yeshua wasn’t importantly different from other human beings or from the other prophets who had a divine mission to fulfil in Israel.

To get a better perspective on Yeshua’s position, we have to distinguish between the essential features of human nature, which are shared by Yeshua and us alike, and the specific prerogatives of the office of Messiah, which are uniquely his, and which imply huge differences between him and all other human beings, because of the gifts bestowed upon him by the Father.

It is well-known that after his resurrection Yeshua was given all power in heaven and earth (Mt. 28:18). And already during his earthly life he was not only the perfect man through the property of sinlessness. He was granted the power to work miracles and to forgive sins, as appears from the Gospels (Mt. 9:1-8).[1] He was also granted special knowledge (Mt. 17:24-27 & Jn. 1:47-51), although he was by no means omniscient (Mk. 13:32).

Before and after his resurrection, however, all the special powers and prerogatives of Yeshua were and are derived from G-d.[2] The Messiah sent by G-d is always totally dependent on the Father (Jn. 5:19). The essential difference between G-d and creature is thus fully maintained in the case of Yeshua. Only creatures are dependent beings, G-d never is dependent on anything in whatever way.

There are thus some perfections found in Yeshua, which are not normal human perfections, such as knowing things about the future, having the power to resurrect the dead and to be the Judge of all men, &c (Jn. 5:25-27). These are perfections Yeshua received because of his special position of being the Messiah, the second Adam, the cornerstone of the new creation. These perfections do however not in any manner imply that Yeshua himself is G-d. As I said, all these perfections are received —  and thus created — perfections.

The perfections and prerogatives bestowed upon Yeshua can be called “divine”, because they are in themselves superhuman, or supernatural. The prophets did at times share in some of them. Think for instance of Moses, to whom were given special miraculous powers when he appeared before Pharao. Yet it is clear as daylight that the “divine” powers that were shared by Moses in no way elevated him to the status of Deity. These powers indicated that he fulfilled a divine mission, i.e. a special mission proceeding from G-d. Similarly, the divine prerogatives and powers shared by Yeshua don’t make him G-d. They make him the special agent of G-d.

Since, ultimately, Yeshua is our only Mediator with G-d, the only one through whom we can receive atonement for our our sins and restoration to the status of being in full communion with G-d, he has a position which is incomparable to any other prophet. All the blessings relevant for our spiritual life come to us through him. Only on account of his merits are we able to become the children of G-d.

Being a creature thus in no way diminishes Yeshua’s unique status or his high exalted position.[3] It makes him the perfect agent of G-d, the one and only Mediator for all mankind.

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[1] Cf. “If Jesus Isn’t God, How Did He Forgive Sins?” at: Biblical Unitarian.

[2] Cf. “How Did Jesus Do the Amazing Things He Did?” at: Biblical Unitarian.

[3] Cf. “Does the Teaching that Jesus is the Son of God, Not God Himself, Demean Him?” at: Biblical Unitarian.

The Yahrzeit of Rachel Imeinu

 

Today, the 11th day of the month Cheshvan, is the Yahrzeit, the annual remembrance day of Rachel Imeinu (i.e. the Matriarch Rachel). Many in Israel travel to Bethlehem on that occasion and say prayers at her tomb. There is a story connected to this practice, which attempts to give a deeper motive why Rachel was buried there and not in Hebron, where all the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried. The story tells us that this happened with a purpose. When in their later history the Israelites were led into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar, they would pass Rachel’s tomb and have the opportunity to say prayers there. Rachel would hear her children praying at her gravesite and she would cry and plead to G-d on their behalf [1].

A disturbing thing about this story is the mentioning of a dead person pleading to G-d on behalf of the living. This is not a concept found in Scripture. It is wholly contradictory to the teachings of Scripture. The Bible tells us again and again that the dead are really dead and not alive [2]. They cannot intercede for us with G-d or help us in any way. Only living people can help others or intercede for them in prayer. Accepting the concept of the dead pleading for the living easily leads to the acceptance of the closely related concept of the living praying to dead saints as intermediaries with G-d. This last mentioned concept is expressly and definitely prohibited in the Torah (Dt. 18:11).

Praying at a gravesite of a dead saint with the intention that these prayers should be heard by him in order to gain his intercession is dangerously close to transgression of the prohibition of praying to the dead, even if one directs these prayers to HaShem. The first error, that the dead are somehow alive and can help the living through intercessory prayers, naturally leads to the second, that it is proper to seek the intercession of the dead and ask them to act as intermediaries with HaShem [3].

If one wants to avoid the error of praying to the dead, one should first avoid the misconception that the dead are somehow alive, having knowledge and being able to interfere in the affairs of the living. The biblical teaching is that the dead have no knowledge or power at all. Death according to Scripture is simply the end of existence. For that reason, all practices that suggest otherwise or that can lead to misunderstanding and confusion should be avoided.

At this point it is perhaps good to remind ourselves that, from a Torah viewpoint, a gravesite is an unclean place and a major source of uncleanness. One can ask oneself what sense it does make to perform the ritual of handwashing (Netilat Yadayim), required before prayer, and then to say one’s prayers at a place of unclean contamination. [4].

It is certainly proper to honour the memory of the faithful departed, and to remember the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Israel is a way of fulfilling the commandment to honour one’s parents (Ex. 20:12). It is also proper to honour the memory of the deceased of one’s family or nation. There is nothing wrong with observing their Yahrzeit and marking this day by burning a Yahrzeit candle. But one should avoid erroneous or confusing practices. One should not pray for the deceased. This is senseless, since the deceased are no longer in existence. For the same reason, and because of the prohibition found in the Torah, one should not pray to the dead. One should also avoid all prayers which seek the intercession of the deceased.

A proper prayer for the occasion of a Yahrzeit consists in thanksgiving for the lives of the deceased persons and for their contributions to the life of later generations.

It is by no means excluded by the foregoing that HaShem grants us blessings because of the faithfulness, piety and righteousness of saints who lived in earlier generations. And accordingly, HaShem may still answer prayers which they in their time offered on our behalf. But these things are secrets of which we cannot have accurate knowledge. It is sufficiently certain, however, that we can no longer actively seek the assistence and intercession of the departed. Their earthly tasks and responsibilities have ended. They have gone out of existence and will not be restored to life again before the resurrection [5].

The only person who can now intercede for us is Messiah Yeshua, our living High Priest in heaven, who is always prepared to pray to the Father on our behalf. That’s why we should offer our prayers to G-d the Father in his name.

Rachel the Matriarch is connected to Yeshua’s life through the terrible event of the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem by the cruel king Herod. In his account of this Mattityahu quotes the prophet Yirmeyahu (31:15):

Mt. 2:17-18: Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Yirmeyahu the prophet, saying, In Ramah was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

Rachel is introduced here in a figure of speech, as a personification of the nation of Israel, because she is a mother of Israel and because her tomb is situated in the neighbourhood of Bethlehem, in Ramah. Israel is the intended mother of this personification, bereft of her children through exile and slaughter. Rachel died in giving birth to Benyamin, and thus she literally gave her life for one of her children. Her self-sacrificing care for her children would grow utterly bitter and without purpose, if these children, or their posterity, should be murdered or sent into exile.

About the time of the Maccabean revolt and the rise of Pharisaism, belief in the immortality of the human soul was introduced in Judaism. And thus it became possible to interpret Yirmeyahu’s words, cited above, in a literal manner and to understand them as speaking of the immortal soul of Rachel. This interpretation afforded the foundation for making the person of Rachel into a kind of national mediatrix with G-d for Israel. This was a wrong spiritual development in Judaism, which shows uncanny analogies to the excesses of later Catholicism as to the status and position of Miryam, the virgin mother of the Messiah.

We should avoid all these excesses, and honour the memorial of our ancestors on a biblical basis and within the limits provided by the Torah. This we can do by not only giving due attention to their Yahrzeit days, but above all by following their walk and example of faithfulness. We believe that the following Yahrzeit Prayer is in accord with this duty.

 

Yahrzeit Prayer:

O G-d, the King of saints, we praise and magnify thy Holy Name for all thy servants who have finished their course in thy faith and fear; for the blessed Virgin Miryam, the Mother of our Lord; for the holy Patriarchs and Matriarchs, for Rachel the Matriarch; for the Apostles and Martyrs; and for all other thy righteous servants known to us and unknown;  and we beseech thee that, encouraged and inspired by their examples we may with them be partakers of the inheritance of the Saints in light, in that great Day of the Appearing of our Lord and Saviour Yeshua the Messiah, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Ruach HaKodesh, world without end. Amen. [6]

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[1] “11 Cheshvan – Rachel Imeinu Passes Away” at: Orthodox Union.

[2] View the article:  “The dead are dead until the Rapture or Resurrection” at: Truth or Tradition.

[3] That the intercession of Rachel is actually sought is clear from the following quote from the Kever Rachel Imeinu website: “Since the time of her burial- more then 3000 years ago,  the Tomb of Rachel has always been a special place for prayer.  To this very day, men and women go to Rachel’s Tomb to shed tears and beg “Mother Rachel” to intercede with G-d on their behalf — for the health of a loved one or for Divine Intervention for those in need.”  “Rachel’s Tomb. The Jewish Second Holiest Site.” at: Kever Rachel Imeinu.

[4] Cf. Rav David Brovsky, “Washing Hands upon Waking and before Prayer” at: The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash.

[5] View footnote [2].

[6] An adapted version of the prayer found on page 489 of The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church, Edition 1979, The Seabury Press.

The Yahrzeit of Charles H. Welch (5728)

 

[Footnotes and additional information on Welch’s works will follow.]

Charles Henry Welch (1880-1967) was born and raised in London, in an areligious and atheistic home. In November 1900 he attended an address on the subject “Sceptics and the Bible”, given by an American, Dr. L.W. Munhall, m.a., d.d., at Exeter Hall, Strand. In a second address by the same Dr. Munhall the Gospel was preached and Welch accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Saviour. Shortly afterwards, his father also came to faith and in the course of time his mother and sisters followed.

Welch soon became an ardent student of Scripture and discovered that, contrary to what was taught in traditional Church doctrine, the restoration of Israel and the coming of the Millennial Kingdom were a main theme of the New Testament, not of the Gospels only but also of the Acts of the Apostles and many of Paul’s letters. By his biblical studies he came to conclusions that were very similar to results earlier obtained by Ethelbert W. Bullinger, an Anglican clergyman who emphasized that “the Church” — meaning the Assembly of believers which is now and which historically became separated from the Jewish nation — did not legitimately begin at Acts ch. 2, but at Acts ch. 28.

Bullinger had discovered that during the time of the Acts of the Apostles the Millennial Kingdom, which was offered to Israel during the earthly ministry of the Lord Yeshua, was re-offered to them by the resurrected Messiah and his Apostles. When this offer was finally rejected and national repentance did not occur, the verdict of Isaiah ch. 6 was solemnly pronounced by Paul in Acts 28:25-27, and it was declared that from then on “the salvation of G-d is sent unto the Gentiles” (Acts 28:28). According to Bullinger this declaration implied the setting aside of the nation of Israel. In his interpretation it was a dispensational boundary that marked the starting point of the predominantly Gentile Christian Church.

Although Welch had once seen a copy of Bullinger’s monthly journal: Things to Come, he arrived at these conclusions largely independently from Bullinger’s works. When later on he saw again an issue of Things to Come and found an article which could have been composed from his own notes, he started a conversation with Bullinger about the consequences of the hypothesis that Acts 28 was the starting point of “the Church” for the interpretation of Paul’s letters. Welch saw an inconsistency in Bullinger’s approach. If Bullinger was correct and the verdict of Acts 28 marked the end of the Kingdom Offer and the beginning of a new dispensation of “the Church of the One Body” as he called it, then — Welch pointed out to him — Paul’s epistles could no longer be treated as one corpus. The conclusion was inevitable that they belonged to two groups. Under that presupposition the epistles written before Acts 28 were written at a time when the Kingdom Offer was still in force. The epistles written after Acts 28 — the prison epistles — however, reflected a theological situation in which the Kingdom Offer had expired and the new reality of a Church in which the national prerogatives of Israel had been set aside was initiated.

Bullinger’s and Welch’s discovery of a Kingdom Offer during the period of the Acts is of the utmost importance for Messianic Judaism. It makes clear that the New Testament Scriptures continue the story of Israel not only during the earthly ministry of Messiah recorded in the Gospels, but also during the Acts of the Apostles. Acts ch. 2 doesn’t report the birth of the later Church. It reports the birth of an entirely Jewish Assembly of Messiah, which functions as a missionizing agency with the purpose of bringing Israel to national repentance from its sin of crucifying Messiah, in an effort of convincing the nation to accept him after all.

Welch’s main contribution to the idea of a re-Offer of the Kingdom during the Acts was his keen insight that this idea required a division of Paul’s letters into two groups which would have to show different features and accents. The merit of his contribution may be that Welch perhaps shaped a useful tool for reconciling some apparent discrepancies within the corpus of Paul, a tool that seems particularly relevant for those whose study of Paul is guided by a Torah-observant perspective. This aspect of Welch’s work still awaits further study and evaluation.

A shadow-side to their discoveries is that both Bullinger and Welch erred in interpreting the Kingdom Offer and the boundary of Acts 28 within a dispensationalist hermeneutical framework. Both concluded that between the verdict of Acts 28 and the future national restoration at the Second Coming Israel was no longer G-d’s people. Consequently they interpreted the status of the present community of believers (“the Church”) as one wholly separated from the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants. They forgot what so many have forgotten, that Paul’s announcement of the verdict of Isaiah 6 operated within the context of the covenantal blessings and punishments of the Torah and that for that reason his announcement pre-supposes the continuing existence of Israel as G-d’s nation.

Bullinger and Welch didn’t adequately distinguish between the basic constitution of Israel as G-d’s nation since the Exodus and Sinai events, which always remains intact and is not subject to change, and its fruitful instrumental role in fulfilling G-d’s purposes in bringing in the Kingdom Age, which is subject to change and failure. Through disobedience Israel can temporary fail in being useful for HaShem in bringing in the Kingdom. But this fact doesn’t change its basic constitution of being G-d’s chosen nation.

Despite these errors there remains much to be admired and explored in Bullinger’s and Welch’s writings which could be relevant to the present conundrums faced by the messianic world. One of these is the never-ending discussion on Jewish and Gentile identity. If we re-interpret Welch’s vision of the present Church in a non-dispensational and pro-Torah context, a picture emerges according to which the Assembly of Messiah is composed of individual Jews and Gentiles on a basis of strict equality. The nation of Israel (i.e. the Jewish people) is another thing. It exists apart from this Assembly and cultivates the preservation of Jewish identity in its separation from the community of believers. Both communities are partial realizations of the full reality of “Israel”, and will not merge before the Second Coming of Messiah, when the Millennial Kingdom will be established.

Welch’s writings deserve a careful study and interpretation. By his analytical exploration of the Bullinger’s idea of the Kingdom Offer, Welch has contributed to a better understanding of the New Testament Scriptures. When his works are studied in a context which is detached from their original dispensationalist setting, fruitful insights are to be expected. That’s the reason for drawing attention to his Yahrzeit here.

Charles Welch died on November 11, 1967, which according to the Hebrew calendar was the 8th of Cheshvan, 5728. Upcoming Shabbat is his 44th Yahrzeit. May his memory, and the study of his works, be a blessing.

 

Yahrzeit Prayer:

O G-d, the King of saints, we praise and magnify thy Holy Name for all thy servants who have finished their course in thy faith and fear; for the Blessed Virgin Miryam, the Mother of our Lord; for the holy patriarchs, apostles and martyrs; and for all other thy righteous servants known to us and unknown; and also for our teacher — in thee and for thee — Charles Henry Welch; and we beseech thee that, encouraged and inspired by their examples, and strengthened by their fellowship here on earth, we may with them be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light, in that great Day of the Appearing of our Lord and Saviour Yeshua the Messiah, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.