Are we Gentilizing the Word of God?
In my previous article (March/April 2010) I introduced the issue that we fundamentalists often subconsciously depreciate the doctrine of Messiah and the doctrine of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. In a very brief way I began to show that Jesus, who is the Second Person of the God-head, was active in the Tanakh as the “angel of the LORD” (Gen 22; Exod 3), the “caption of the LORD’s host” (Josh 5), the LORD (Isaiah 50:1-6; Zech 11:4-14), and the Shechinah (Exod 3; 13:21-22; 14:19-24;19:16-20; 33:12-23; 40:34-38). As I show in my new book, “Discovering the Mystery of the Unity of God,” Yeshua did not begin His ministry in Bethlehem but at Creation (John 1:1-3; Isaiah 48:12-16; Zech 12:1, 10) and He interacted with mankind throughout the pages of the Tanakh.
Before we go into the heart of this article, I would like to lay out two areas of concern that I have with the fundamental churches. I freely acknowledge that the church is being attacked from within and without on many fronts and that the Word of God has been deflected, diminished, compromised and denied from the pulpits across our land to the people in the pews. At the IFCA International Conference this year the central focus was on the word “Passion” as in “Passion For Ministry,” and Charles Petitt, Bobby Scott, Alex Montoya and Les Lofquist spoke to different aspects of the passion that we need to have in our ministry as we serve the LORD in the field of service He has placed us. I also have a passion. My primary passion is being faithful in the teaching of the Word of God as God gave it, and He did not give it in a Gentile frame of reference as it is presented most often from the “sacred desk.” I do have a passion for Jewish people, but that passion is in tandem with the passion for the Word of God. I watch pastors in conferences and I see a general disinterest in reaching Jewish people and in learning the Scriptures as God gave it from a Jewish context. We all agree that context in our study and presentation of Scripture is of utmost importance. We all say that we study and present the Scriptures that way, but do we? Please indulge me as I think out loud with my observations as I contemplate why pastors and seminary professors put the study and presentation of Scripture from a Jewish perspective at the “back of the bus,” or in the closet away from our daily use. Ask yourself these questions. If I could sit down with you one on one this is what I would like to discuss with you.
• Why do fundamental and conservative pastors neglect and avoid the Jewish people and the Jewish background of the Scripture?
• Is Israel nothing more than a dispensational theological position?
• Is the Land Covenant (Palestinian Covenant) a piece of real estate, a theological position rather than a people with eternal souls who will inherit the Land?
• Does the promise of the Kingdom become just another theological position with Jesus as the King or does it include the fulfillment to a distinct people and nation?
• Are the Jewish people a people, or just a theological position? Without the Jewish people our theological positions on the Land and Kingdom are worthless.
• Do we believe that because the Nation of Israel will be saved in a day that they do not need to be pursued by us with the Gospel of Messiah?
• Are the Jewish people today going to be saved because of the covenants, or because they are Jewish??
• Why do we avoid the Jewish background of the Scripture and emphasize the Greek Gentile background?
• Do we feel a spiritual indebtedness to the Jewish people for giving us the written Word of God and their Messiah as our Saviour and all the riches that we have because of believing in their Messiah?
It seems fundamental and conservative pastors often ignore both the Jewish people and the fact that the Bible we preach is a Jewish book from Genesis through Revelation. We study and preach the Jewish Bible as if it was composed by Gentile Christians with little reference to its Jewishness; a Gentile perspective is not the context of the Scripture!
I do not believe that we do this with a conscious desire to neglect Jewish people or the teaching of the Bible from a Jewish perspective, but we are a product, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, of those who have proceeded us who have carried on a “tradition” of Gentile distortion of the Jewish Tanakh and the New Testament. We do it out of ignorance (that included me too) partially because of an inconsistent hermeneutic and because we are caught up in a very good system of theology which has its weaknesses, as every human system has. Yet more often than not that is exactly what the end result is in our churches: doctrinally sound but not placing the same emphasis on the Jewish context of Scripture as God wrote it and the emphasis that God places on Israel and the Jewish people in our practical theology. Please do not judge me as being harsh or condescending, but “iron does sharpen iron” right? Now let me point to two areas that I believe have contributed significantly in producing that neglect of the Jewish people and the “Gentilizing” of the Jewish Scriptures.
As a dispensationalist I believe completely in the teaching of the Scriptures from that perspective and I completely reject covenant theology and progressive dispensationalism. However, I do have a problem with how dispensationalism presents two key words: Law and the Old Testament because it sets the wrong tone and it has in reality and practice moved the body of Messiah away from the biblical principle of “rightly dividing the word of truth.” We teach that Law and Grace do not mix and that is absolutely correct, however, there is much more to the Hebrew Scripture than Law! The vast majority of the Tanakh is presented as the dispensation of Law, and with that I have no disagreement. But thinking practically, how does that come across to us and to our people? We are New Testament believers and we need to spend our time in the New Testament and the instruction that God has given to us through the apostles as they wrote to the churches. Is that true? Of course it is true. But what does that also say about the Hebrew Scripture? The Old Testament is Law and we are not under the Law, hence the Hebrew Scriptures are not significant to us, so why study it? Generally speaking, believers only reference the Old Testament to do character studies, read the Psalms or touch on prophecy. Yet the foundation of all that the apostles wrote to us in the New Testament has its theological foundation in that dispensation we call Law. So, practically speaking, because of not having an understanding of the foundation of the New Testament, we and our people inevitably ignore or diminish the Hebrew Scripture in relationship to the New Testament. Yet where do we learn about the character, nature, person and essence of God? Where do we learn about the covenants, the coming Redeemer, the promise of the King and the Kingdom? Where do we learn about the coming of the Messiah? Where do we see the plurality and deity of the Messiah? The Hebrew Scriptures! Because the Old Testament is a dispensation of Law, we in all practically relegate it to the position of being inferior to the New Testament or Grace. Not one of us believes that, yet practically, that is how seminary and bible college professors have presented it to you and me, and that is how we present it to the flock that we pastor. I have often stated that the bible college or seminary we have attended taught the Old Testament well, and they have taught the New Testament well, but they taught them as being divorced from each other, again because Law and Grace do not mix. These two testaments inter-relate and inter-connect with each other; they are inseparably linked together as one book! They are the verbal PLENARY inspired Scriptures. We say that, but in practice we do not do that? Jesus, Paul, Peter, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, James and Jude did not speak or write from a vacuum. Their source material was from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. The “all scripture is given by inspiration” is Paul’s statement concerning the Hebrew Scriptures.
The second word that diminishes the Hebrew Scripture in our minds and hearts is our understanding of the word “old” as in Old Testament versus the “New” in New Testament. Again, what does “old” in Old Testament transmit or convey to our understanding? The term “old” deals with something in the past, from an historically earlier period, that which shows age, something that is no longer in use, something often discarded. What do we do with “old” things? We esteem them of lesser value. We do not necessarily discard them, but we place them in a position of unimportance or lesser value. We do that all the time when we fill our attics and garages with “old” things that we do not know what to do with, but do not want to throw out. When we speak of the Old Testament, we are transmitting the idea that it is no longer of value; it no longer holds great significance or authority to us. Often the Old Testament is quoted only when it is convenient to teach a New Testament truth because the focus is not on the whole of Scripture, but the New Testament from a Gentile perspective. Now couple these two concepts together and the natural result of placing the “old” with “law,” we have 39 books or two thirds of our bible that is “old” and connected to “law.” It is no longer of great value, nor is it as authoritative as the “new,” hence we are saying unconscientiously to our people that the Old Testament is in an inferior position to the New Testament. Do we believe in verbal plenary inspiration or do we just say that we do? I personally have stopped using the term “Old Testament” and have replaced it with the phrase “Hebrew Scriptures” and I am searching for a term that better expresses the dispensation of law.
Now let us look together at Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures. Let me use this to show how the apostles understood the central theme in the Hebrew Scriptures, which all focuses on the person of Messiah and the fulfillment of covenants to a Jewish nation, as well as how they understood other connecting themes in the Tanakh. Let me begin with a very familiar reference from the gospel of John.
In John 1 we are presented by biblical scholars with Greek Logos. I remember in Bible College being taught about the Greek Logos philosophy. I remember the “Gentilization” of this passage with the Greek Logos of Reason: the idea of God, and Speech: the expression of God. In recent years I have discovered that this Greek Logos was a pagan Greek philosophy of god that goes back as far as 300 BC to the Stoics and Platonism. In essence it is god sending a secondary god to interact with mankind. Now John was not a Greek, nor was he using a pagan Greek philosophy to present the Messiah of Israel, the fulfillment of the covenants to Israel. John was a Hebrew fisherman raised in Hebrew theology, and wanted to present Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, as God, not a secondary god, and he wanted to present Messiah as the Word of God, the Memra (Aramaic), the Davar (Hebrew) or God. However, he was writing in the Greek language, and logos is the Greek word for “word.” This is the only connection that John and his use of logos, the Word, had with Greek Logos. John was presenting Messiah as the Word from the Hebrew Scriptures and not from pagan Greek philosophy. Consider, is there a biblical basis from the Tanakh to present the Messiah as the Word? The answer is an emphatic yes! He did not need pagan Greek philosophy to build a case for Yeshua being the Word. Remember, this is a Jewish book with Hebrew theology; it does not become Greek just because John was using the Greek language.
First, John has a theme of presenting Yeshua as God. He is building upon one of the branch passages from the Hebrew Scriptures. He picks up Isaiah 4:2 with the statement “the branch of LORD” and applies it to the Messiah. Matthew, Mark and Luke do the same thing by also picking up the branch theme from Jeremiah and Zechariah to present Messiah as the King (Matthew), the Servant (Mark) and the Man (Luke).
Second, John is speaking about five and possibly six things that the rabbis of his day equated with the Word, which was called the ‘Memra’ by the rabbis. This was commonly taught and understood in that day and John applies their Hebrew theology from the Tanakh to Messiah. Messiah Yeshua in His pre-incarnate state was the Creator, the LORD, Elohim, Adonai, the Seed, the King, the Prophet, the Shechinah Glory, the Angel of the LORD, the Angel of His face, the Messenger of the Covenant, the Branch, the son of David, Immanuel, and the Word.
In John 1:1-2, the apostle presents Messiah as the Memra (Word) who is distinct from God, but the same as God. In Genesis 15:1, 4 it was the “word of the LORD” that came and spoke to Abraham and confirmed the covenant with him. If you also note Judges 2:1, “the angel of the LORD” confirms the fact that it was He who made that covenant. Next look at 1 Samuel 3:7, but in particular verse 21 which states, “the LORD appeared again in Shiloh: for the LORD revealed himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of the LORD.” Notice carefully the words “appeared” and “revealed.” That is language of a physical manifestation (Gen 12:7; 17:1; 18:1; Exod 3:2), and it all focuses on the Word of the LORD that appeared. Look as well at Psalm 33:6 which states: “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.” Here the word of the LORD is a person, the Second Person of Elohim. Notice 1 Kings 19:9 concerning Elijah at Mt. Sinai: “And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?” Also, if you observe that in most of the communication with the prophets, Jeremiah and Ezekiel in particular, it is the “word of the LORD” that spoke to them. In each one of these instances, the Memra, or the Word, is the same as and yet distinct from God.
Unusual examples come from the Targums, a Jewish paraphrase of the Hebrew Scriptures from the first century BC and first century AD. The Targums actually show the distinctiveness of the Word from God, and also equates it with God. Let me give you several examples as there are many others: Gen 1:27 “And the Word of Jehovah created man…”; Gen 3:8 “And they [Adam and Eve] heard the voice of the word of the Lord God walking in the garden”; Gen 7:16 “And the Word of the Lord covered over the door of the ark,” and Gen 15:6 “And he believed in the Lord, and had faith in the (Memra) Word of the Lord, and he reckoned it to him for righteousness.” So, John very definitely did have a precedent from the Tanakh to use the term ‘Word’ and relate it to Yeshua without equating it with Greek Logos.
Twice, John refers to the Memra (Word) as the agent of creation in verses 3 and 10 of chapter one. In the Hebrew Scriptures the plurality of God in creation is given to us in Genesis 1, Eccl 12:1, and the Second Person of Elohim is clearly stated in Isaiah (48:12-16) and Zechariah (12:1, 10) as the LORD Who is that Creator.
John, in verse 12, presents the Word as the agent of salvation. Throughout the Tanakh the LORD redeems His people. They were to place their trust in Him and show their faith in Him by being obedient to His law, ordinances, statues, and commandments. He provided physical salvation from their enemies, spiritual salvation when they believed in Him.
John, in verse 14, presents the Memra (Word) as the agent whereby God becomes visible. Just go back to the Tanakh and look at the multitude of passages that deal with God becoming visible. It was not God the Father that became visible, but God the Son who consistently became visible throughout the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures as John the Baptist and Yeshua references in John 1:18; 5:37; 14:8-10. Consider Genesis 18, Joshua 5:14-15, Judges 6:11-14 as well as the appearances of the Shechinah glory.
The Shechinah of God appeared constantly in the Torah to Moses in Exodus 3, to the nation of Israel in Exodus 19:16-20, before the Elders of Israel in Exodus 24:9-11, before Moses and the people as the pillar of cloud at the Tent of Meeting and His taking up residence in the Tabernacle in Exodus 40. Here the Shechinah was the very presence of God, in fire, smoke and cloud.
It is interesting to note that during the Feast of Tabernacles in Yeshua’s day, one of the activities was the festival of lights. In the evening they would light four lampstands in the temple court yard and would say that the lighting of the candles symbolized the Shechinah or the very presences of God. During that same period of time, Yeshua said in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world,” So what is the Jewish context of that passage, He was the Shechinah, the presences of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. It was He who met with Moses on Mt. Sinai, gave the Law and dwelt in the Holy of Holies. John makes all these connections, for one of His sub-themes throughout his gospel is that Yeshua is the Light (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6). He first appears in Genesis 15:9-18 in connection with the confirmation of the Abrahamic Covenant, then to Moses and the nation of Israel during their wilderness wanderings, then the Shechinah of Glory took up residence in Solomon’s Temple. We also have reference to the judgment of God taking place through the Shechinah of God, including the judgment of Nadab and Abihu (Num 10), when Israel murmured at Taberah (Num 11), in judging Aaron and Miriam (Num 12), the Kadesh-barnea incident (Num 14) as well as the judgment of house of Korah (Num 16), and again with the grumbling of the People (Num 16). It is the Second Person of Elohim that spoke, acted, and appeared throughout the pages of the Tanakh, whether it is the Angel of the LORD or the Shechinah of God who revealed the Father and gave His will to the people and nation.
John, in verse 18, presents the Word as the agent of revelation Who revealed the Father. He revealed the Father’s character, including His holiness, righteousness and justice. Man has no way of comprehending God without the revealing of the Father by the Son. The Word spoke and the world was created. The Word who revealed the will of the Father spoke to Abraham, to Samuel, and the prophets like Elijah, Nathan, Gad, the man of God, Shemaiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Jonah, Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
The sixth point is the possibility that John was presenting the Word as the agent that signed His covenants in verse 17. His connection to the covenants is clearly seen in the Abrahamic Covenant with the Word being the covenant maker. With the inter-connection of the term “angel,” the “angel of the LORD,” and the Shechinah or Glory of God, He gave the Mosaic Covenant from Mt. Sinai. It is the “word of the covenant, which the LORD commanded Moses” that makes the Land Covenant. We recognize from the rest of the Torah that it was the Second Person of Elohim that spoke and acted throughout this time. It was the “word of the LORD” that spoke to Nathan concerning the Davidic Covenant. In 2 Samuel 7:6-7 (1 Chron 17:3-4) the context from verses 4 and 5 give us the speaker who is the “word of the LORD” as the LORD as He reflects back to the time of the exodus. He clearly stated that He brought up Israel from Egypt just as it is recorded in the Torah, and that this Person was the “angel of the LORD,” the “angel” of Exodus 23:20-23 who was also the Shechinah of God, the LORD. Exodus 3:6, 15 state that the “angel of the LORD” is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Judges 2:1 states that it was the “angel of the LORD” that brought Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land just as He had promised the patriarchs. In Ezekiel 36:16 it is the “word of the LORD,” and in verse 22 “the LORD” is used interchangeably and is the one who said in verse 26-27 that He will give “a new heart also will I give you and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statues, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them” which in Jeremiah 31:31-34 is called the New Covenant. Not only is the “word of the LORD” the covenant maker, it is His blood that will confirm that covenant (Matt 26:27-28) as He stated in His last Passover when He picked up the third cup, the cup of redemption, and said that His blood is the New Covenant.
So here, John in the first chapter of his gospel presents the Messiah of Israel as the Word, the Word of the LORD, who communicated with Israel throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
I wrote about all this, and so very much more in my new book, Discovering the Mystery of the Unity of God. This book was written to challenge Jewish people in the claims of God from the Hebrew Scriptures: that He is a plurality in one and that the Messiah of Israel is the God/Man. It was also written for believers to encourage them in the richness of the Word of God from the Hebrew Scriptures. I have also written it to challenge pastors and teachers to revisit the Hebrew Scriptures and mine out the great riches that God has tucked away in each book and chapter of the Tanakh. I personally want to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to share that with the body of Christ, so that they can grow and be able to witness to Jewish people concerning Messiah Yeshua, their Saviour and Messiah.
by John B. Metzger:
John Metzger is a missionary/educator with Ariel Ministries (www.Ariel.org). He has been a IFCA member since 1974 and currently involved in the Atlantic Southeast Regional. For his new book you can contact him directly at JohnMetzger@Ariel.org or Ariel Ministries. For more information on the book go to www.PromiesesToIsrael.org and look at the table of contexts, preface, endorsements, and foreword.