Wineskins Archive

December 19, 2013

Restoration Through Jewish Eyes (Apr-May 1997)

Filed under: — @ 11:21 pm and

by Joseph Shulam
April – May, 1997

The plea for a “restoration of the New Testament church” is a slogan that is fast catching on in evangelical circles. No one has a “patent” on the idea. It has been around for centuries already. And it continues to surface in dramatic ways.

In Tiberias, just above the Sea of Galilee, there are some 50 Russian families who say that all they want is to be like the first-century church. One weekend I was visiting a dear sister on the Golan Heights; it was a good opportunity to visit these Russian seekers after the Messiah. When I arrived there on Friday about 3:30 p.m., they said that if I came in then I would have to stay there through Saturday evening—because they would have no part of me if I “desecrated” the Sabbath.

These Russians come from a forlorn corner of the former USSR. The story goes that there are whole villages in that region which all desire to go back and be like the New Testament church. They have some things in common with the Western “restorationist tradition,” but in many things they are certainly different. I bring their situation to mind in order to make three points.

  • Slogans are a good thing, but they do not guarantee substance.
  • Churches of Christ do not have a monopoly on methods and on the restoration of the New Testament church.
  • If the process of restoration does not move forward and become “unstuck” and more honest, I believe we will abdicate and capitulate to the general Catholic-Protestant tradition. In fact, I believe we largely capitulated to the strong forces of Western Religious Culture a long time ago.

I say these things by way of introduction. My perspective might be new to many of you, for I am a Jew who believes that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. I have never joined the Churches of Christ. The Lord added me to his church. From the first years of my association with the Churches of Christ in America, I was taught that it is enough if the Lord adds you to his church. I have been taught that the Lord’s church has many names in the New Testament and that to be called by any of these names would be just fine with the Lord. I have been taught that the only way to unite the Body of Christ is to speak where the Bible speaks and to allow freedom on matters of opinion. I took it very seriously at the age of sixteen and a half when I gave my life to God, was baptized, and cast out of home.

For me the Bible was enough. I was not asked to accept a creed, nor was I given a list of doctrines and position papers to read. Since 1962 until now, I have held strongly to those teachings of unity and freedom based on the Word of God.

The American Restoration Movement has its roots in Scotland at the beginning of the previous century. From Scotland it was brought to America. In America it found fertile soil that give the restoration idea a great push forward. The father-son Campbells became important speakers for the restoration of first-century Christianity.

The Campbells were influenced by Scottish Reform and Presbyterian ideas and theology. Many things Churches of Christ hold to today are visible influences of the Reformed background of the American Restoration Movement.

Looking at this movement through Jewish eyes, there are facts that I think have been ignored. That neglect has, in turn, caused the American Restoration Movement to flounder in this generation.

  • The New Testament is a Jewish book
  • It was written by Jews in the first century A.D. Yes! I know Luke the Doctor, and I know that it is presumed that he was a Gentile.
  • The context and historical setting of the New Testament is the Jewish World in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora.
  • The leading figures of the New Testament are acting from the framework of Israel’s holy history in fulfillment of God’s promises to the prophets of Israel.
  • The Gentiles were grafted in by the blood of the Messiah. They have no right to usurp the place of Israel in direct opposition to the Word of God.
  • A relationship with Israel today and our common heritage in the Bible will give the church a new feeling of urgency for the second coming of the Messiah. It will help restore a lost apocalyptic worldview. We have stopped waiting for him, and all that we are left with in the Churches of Christ is the fear of going to hell. I do not sense enough motivation to live a positive life full of vision and expectation for a better world in our brotherhood. The present state of mind only adds to the feeling of being in a coma.

These points are important for the “restoration of the New Testament church” because the understanding of these points will make the difference on how we interpret the text of the New Testament in its historical setting. In other words, if we do not put the New Testament back into its first-century context, how can we restore the essence of the New Testament church? And if we lose the apocalyptic worldview of the earliest church, how can we preach the message of Jesus with the urgency they exhibited?

Our relationship to Israel in the Scriptures is essential in my opinion to a clear picture of what the early church was like and the substance of their faith in the Messiah. Many have feared to look at what the Bible teaches about Israel because of a paranoia about premillennialism. I am not premilliennial, and I do not think that Israel has anything to do with premillenialism. But, the attitude we have taken toward and the relationship formed with Israel and the Jewish people has been a stumbling block from living up to our desire to be like the first-century church. It has helped destroy an apocalyptic world-view among us.

How can we stand in diametrical opposition to Paul’s words in Romans 11:1-4 and say that God has rejected Israel? Paul asks the question, “I ask then: Did God reject his people?” He gives the answer: “By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.”

Notice that Paul describes himself in the present tense. He does not say, “I was an Israelite.” He says very clearly in the present tense that he is an Israelite. In my view, it is very important for Churches of Christ to wake up and see that we have much work to do in the way of restoration, rejuvenation, and revival.

The example of our attitude toward Israel and the Jewish people is just one of many issues that we need to return to the Scriptures and re-study. The fear that we might discover something from God’s Word is the fear the Pharisees had in the first century. That fear kept them from looking into the scriptures and seeing that Jesus is the Messiah.

From what I have seen in the Churches of Christ during the last 25 years, many of our brothers have stopped looking into the Scriptures and have built walls and fences to protect what they have received by tradition.

The Lord has used me to bring a few Orthodox Jewish Rabbis to faith in the Messiah. In every case, the starting point is that I would be willing to change if I am wrong and they have to be willing to change if they are wrong. I want to issue the same challenge to my brothers in the united States. Let us get back to the open-minded study of God’s Word and to the doing of his will and stop defending our tainted heritage in order to see the glory of God in these last days.

The roots of the gospel are in Israel, and we have to restore our relationship with and understanding of Israel if we want to relate to the roots and see the full picture of what the early church was like. Restoration can take place by using the Bible itself and will emerge right from the New Testament, but only if we change our attitude and stop using the Bible as a source of proof texts about our doctrines and traditions. We must be honest enough to see what the Bible has to tell us.

The real issue here is not an “old” or “new” hermeneutic. The solution is not in our neighbors’ yards, as if we could “fellowship” or drop some traditions. The answer will be found in getting back to our first love. Only then will we make the plea to restore the substance and love of the New Testament church with genuine passion.

We need to reaffirm very clearly that we are interested in unity with every believer who wants to follow God and live according to his Word. We need to accept those who are baptized believers as our brothers and help each other correct these areas in which we are lacking. We need to get back to the study of God’s Word with a sense of urgency that the Bridegroom is coming soon.

This might sound simplistic to some, but we have models of restoration movements in the Bible. We have the description of what happened when Ezra and Nehemiah read the Torah to the people of Israel who had returned from Babylonian Exile. Let us learn from our Jewish forefathers.

From Nehemiah 8:8-10, these words challenge us: “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.’”

It is time for us to hear the voice of God challenging us to do the same today.Wineskins Magazine

Joseph Shulam

(Transcribed for the Web from the archived print edition by Neita Dudman)

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