This post is a continuation of the previous one.
The second problem has to do with the mission of the Church itself in the world. MJs, and their Gentile co-believers, seem to believe that it is the Holy Spirit's intent to spread an understanding of Jewish culture throughout the world, as a precondition of knowing Yeshua Hamashiach. In this regard, it is very instructive to study Paul's message to the Athenians in Acts 17.
The very fact that Paul went to Athens is monumental. His presence represents the clash of two world-views, no three, as we shall see. It is a restaging of Job going to Nineveh, but without the whale. Imagine if Paul had gone to Athens twenty years earlier, in his prior incarnation as Saul. Standing on the Areopagus, amidst statues of semi-clothed divinities, multiple shrines and cult prostitutes, he would have torn his robes and thrown a holy fit:
“O G-d, in the spirit of Elijah, I call down your holy fire to strike these blasphemers and incinerate their abominations. Give me for one moment the strength of Samson and I myself will bring down these marble pillars upon their heads.”
Saul would have done this, but not Paul. In the intervening years, Paul himself had been struck by the divine fire. Confronted now by the very root of that paganism that swept throughout the Mediterranean, all he could come up with was:
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.”
“Very religious?” How lame! Rather than spewing fire and brimstone, he actually seeks a point of contact with them – and this contact is completely devoid of Jewish history and theology. He sets aside all his rabbinical studies, his memorization of much of the Torah, and quotes their own poets! How did he know anything about the Greek poets? Only by extensive previous study of the entire Greek thoughtworld.
In the course of his very short sermon, he says,
“[God] made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him (Acts 17:26-27).”
This means that the Greeks have a part in God's divine plan – He set their time in history and their place in geography, and He desires them to come to know Him. This is a novel, even a revolutionary, idea. Saul did not come up with this. Jews yes – they were central to God's purpose, He had set the boundaries of “'eretz Israel.'” The people of Abraham were ”the apple of his eye,” the diamond in the dung heap. But the Gentiles were the dung – they were those upon whom God would wreak His righteous wrath and demonstrate His holiness. No one believed the Gentiles had any value to God, and even if a few of them were permitted to attend synagogue, it was only by a complete cleansing of their filth and a forsaking of all things Gentile that they were (slightly) tolerated. Quoting a Greek poet in an evangelistic sermon was as out of the question as seeking one's wife in a whorehouse, because to an observant Jew all of Greek culture was corrupt.
This same attitude, the Saul effect, influences MJs today. “We must go back to a New Testament faith and purge ourselves of Gentile contaminations.” This reflects a profound misunderstanding of the work of the Holy Spirit. He is not trying to convert the multiplicity of races, ethnicities, and cultures to pseudo-Judaism, but to present Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all the deepest hopes of mankind. All men have sinned, and have gone astray, and have expressed their disobedience in multicultural ways. As Paul says to the Greeks,
“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:29-31).
Paul speaks of “ignorance” not sin, because the Greeks sought wisdom above all things. He was re-casting Christ in terms that they could respond to, while upholding the centrality of Jesus' death and resurrection. This never changed in his Gospel, but the “backstory” did. A Jewish Jesus would have been as unintelligible to these Greeks as He has been to most Africans, Chinese and Japanese in later centuries.
When Jesus said, “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him” (Jn 4:23), He was not speaking about a form of worship, a certain liturgy or ritual. He meant that worship must come from the heart of the believer – not negating the head (doctrine, creed), but going beyond that to include the very symbols, desires, and lifeways of the worshipper. A Greek convert COULD NOT worship as a Messianic Jew – he didn't have the cultural preconditioning. If he tried to do so, it was all pretense, and a denial of his own heart. And instead of being obedient to God, it was a subtle form of disobedience, because as Paul said in Acts 17:26, his own cultural heritage was established by God. Men perverted it, true – God's intent was for the Gentiles to “feel after Him” as best they could until the time of revelation. Now that revelation has come, God's intent is not to abolish their culture, but to pervade and transform it, starting from the proclamation of the Cross. The Cross represents not merely the fulfillment of the conflicts and hopes of the Old Testament, but also the yearnings for knowledge and wisdom of the Greek philosophers.
This is what Messianic Judaism does not understand. It seeks to propagate itself on alien soil, to spread the mindset of the 1st century Jerusalem church to the Gentile world. This is a hopeless mission, and so far as it succeeds by inducing Gentiles to forsake their cultural heritage, it produces inauthentic believers, legalists, and people with a false self-consciousness. Rather than making people adopt Jewish terminology and customs, the call of the Spirit is for these Gentiles to take the Cross and the Blood to the very heart of their own culture in terms their own friends and families will understand – following the pattern of Paul speaking to the pagans in Athens. Let Jesus Christ address the yearnings, symbols, fears and corruptions of each society. And let Him transform the customs and festivals, so that what was once offered to idols is now consecrated to God.
So instead of despising Christmas and Easter, set up a tree and a manger scene, observe Holy Week, and take every opportunity to proclaim Jesus as Lord of every tongue and tribe.