Sunday, July 5, 2009

Separation of Church and the Jewish State

As a born again Christian twenty years ago, I believed that Yeshua (known as Jesus in most circles) came to earth in order to establish his Church. While I may have rephrased this idea by saying he came to establish his kingdom or that he came to redeem us from sin, my interpretation of “establishing the kingdom” was equivalent to “building the Church.” Likewise, I maintained that sinners are saved into the Church. Furthermore, I saw the Church as a separate entity alongside Israel.

An honest examination of the Apostolic scriptures reveals that this position was simply wrong. Yeshua does have a community of followers, which the scriptures call the 'ecclesia' in Greek. To understand ecclesia, one must go back to the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek during the third century B.C. This valuable compilation is the key for translating much of the Apostolic writings into English. We do this by matching up Greek words from the gospels and epistles with their counterparts in the Septuagint. From there we can take them back to their original Hebrew antecedents. The word ecclesia appears often in the Septuagint. Taking it back to its Hebrew source, we find that it is used to translate the Hebrew word kahal, which means congregation, assembly, or community. More importantly, it refers to the congregation of Israel.

We also know from many passages in the gospels that Yeshua preached to the people of Israel but not the other nations. While only a small percentage of the Jewish people received him, these Jewish disciples, who made up Yeshua's ecclesia, nevertheless remained a part of their nation. When looking at the lives of the believers, we find some astounding evidence that they remained actively involved in daily Jewish life. For example, Acts 2:46 tells us that the disciples met daily in the Temple courtyards. We find later that Peter and John went to the Temple at the hour of the afternoon prayers (Acts 3:1), the same hour that all other observant Jews would be gathering to pray. Years later, Jacob (James), the head of the community of believers worldwide, made a revealing statement to Paul when he came to Jerusalem at the Jewish festival of Shavuot / Pentecost. He said in Acts 21:20, "You see brother, how many tens of thousands of believers there are among the Judeans, and they are all zealots for the Torah."

A number of questions immediately come to mind from these passages. If Yeshua called his "Church" out of Israel, why did they continue to meet at the Temple at all, much less at the set times of prayer? Why did Paul hurry to be at Jerusalem in time for the festival (Acts 20:16) if not for the reason commanded in the Torah (Exodus 23:14-17). Finally, why did they continue to be zealous for the Law of Moses? Surely, they were not being disobedient, else how could they legitimately be called "believers."

While these questions plagued me another question puzzled me even more. How do the answers to the previous questions impact the believers from among the Gentiles? We live in an era when over 99% of Yeshua’s disciples are non-Jewish. In my former way of thinking, the answers to such questions were irrelevant simply because the body of Messiah had clearly become a Gentile entity. Again, examining the scriptures more closely, I discovered that the Good News of Messiah Yeshua did not spread to the Gentiles for another 15 years after the events of Shavuot / Pentecost in Acts 2. Once the message did go to them, however, they too were to be brought into the nation, i.e., the kahal or ecclesia, of Israel (Acts 10:47-48). Nevertheless, they were not to replace Israel nor were they to become Jews.

In fact, what to do with these non-Jews became a hotly debated issue in the first century, with some saying they must become Jews and others saying they should simply be grouped with a class of people known as the G-d fearers (Acts 15:1-11). The decision reached by the Jerusalem Council was that they not undergo full conversion. Instead, they were given a set of starting commandments (Acts 15:19-20) and instructed to attend synagogue where they would learn Torah (Acts 15:21).

Finally, in my quest to learn where the concept of the Church as a separate and distinct entity originated, I found that it began to be seriously proposed in the early second century, shortly after John, the last Apostle, passed away. Once the apostles were all dead, non-Jewish leaders in the community of disciples began actively seeking to separate themselves from the Jewish community, which until that time likely operated under the auspices of the Jewish community leaders (Matthew 23:2-3; Romans 13:1-7 [The "authorities" mentioned by Paul in Romans 13:1 are not Roman government officials as commonly taught by Christians, but rather the recognized Jewish community leaders empowered by Rome.]).

Once the separation became final about 200 years later, the concept of Church as the New Israel became accepted orthodoxy. After the Reformation of the 16th century, new denominations sprang up which modified their stance toward Israel. Instead of seeing the Church as a replacement for Israel, they saw the Church and Israel as two separate groups, both having a place in G-d’s eternal plan. That was the view I held for years. Since then, I have come to realize that scripture views the body of Messiah, i.e., the ecclesia, as a part of Israel. The Jewish believers comprise the faithful remnant of the Nation while the non-Jewish believers comprise what I have termed Greater Israel, much like the mixed multitude that left Egypt with the natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

In my view, the very word "Church" makes little sense because its modern-day definition is so radically different from the context of ecclesia. Defining Yeshua's ecclesia as part of the overall kahal of Israel seems logical to me, especially in light of Zechariah 14:9, which says, “Hashem will be King over all the earth. On that day, Hashem will be one and His name one.” At the time he penned those words, only Israel uttered Zechariah’s reference to Deuteronomy 6:4, considered the watchword of Israel. He foresaw a time when all nations would embrace these words as their own with Messiah as their king. In so doing, the whole world will fall under the dominion of Israel.

The Separation of Church and Faith, Volume One by Dan Gruber
The Mystery of Romans by Mark Nanos
The Formation of Christianity in Antioch by Magnus Zetterholm
Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius

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