A Tale of Two Christmas Sermons: Yeshua and Mitzvot in Synagogue and Church

A strange thing happened this year, just like it tends to happen around this time every year.  I will leave my house for work or errands, or wake up after sleeping in or napping over the weekend, and find–totally unexpectedly–an imitation pine tree, decorated with lights and ornaments in my living room.  Immediately, I’m confused and troubled, yet somewhat bemused by the situation.  Part of me thinks it looks . . . festive (I think the word is?) but the other parts of my brain associated with biblical living and Messianic Jewish identity start firing the neurological equivalent of a “Runtime Error ‘76’ Path Not Found” message.  I’ve heard in certain church and Messianic circles I’ve run in over the years that such fixtures are associated with ancient Druid and Gothic pagan rites.  Are Druid and Gothic cults going around town breaking into houses and setting up pagan fetishes in living rooms? I begin to wonder, but quickly dismiss as unlikely.  Then comes another disturbing thought.  “Was my wife involved in this somehow?” I repress the thought, deciding that this line of questioning may lead to uncovering unpleasant secrets about her whereabouts and activities.  Instead I decide not to get weirded out about the whole situation and take a wait-and-see strategy.  This proves wise. After a week or so, I get use to it.  It becomes a good source of nighttime ambient lighting in my house and helps me keep from stepping on my daughter’s toys (of which there seems to be more of all of the sudden).  A few weeks more pass, sometime around the NFL playoffs and right before MLK day, and the thing disappears as mysteriously as it came.  Again, I’m tempted to ask my wife what happened but then think better of it.

Another strange thing also happened this whatever-Messianic-Jews-are-suppose-to-call-Christmas season.  I heard news of two out of the ordinary Christmas sermons.  Of course, I consider nothing strange or wrong about Christian churches holding Advent services or proclaiming Christ to the masses during a holiday when people are talking about him the most.  What was strange about these two sermons is this: one was by a Rabbi in a Reform Synagogue talking about Yeshua, and another was by a Baptist megachurch preacher talking about Torah mitzvot.  What they had to say was both encouraging and infuriating, the best of messages and the worst of messages you can give about Yeshua and the mitzvot to Israel.  Below, you’ll see which one was which, though I suspect the discerning reader may already have guessed.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Congregation Ohr Hatorah, Mar Vista, CA

THE FIRST OF THESE MESSAGES was a Morning Studies lecture given on December 20, 2014 by Rabbi Mordecai Finley at Congregation Ohr HaTorah in Mar Vista, California.  Finley apparently gives these “Christmas Sermons” around the holiday season each year.  Rabbi Finley’s message first came to my attention through Christian libertarian blogger David Householder.  The full lecture is behind a paywall at the congregation’s media site with a clip available for public listening, so what you read here comes from Householder’s summation of Finley’s speech.  [If the below misrepresents what was actually said, please let me know.]

Finley refrains from a divine characterization of Yeshua, as any mainstream rabbi would.  However, he otherwise had much praise for Yeshua.  He describes Yeshua is a “lost Jewish teacher”, that “Jesus came to wake people up from their spiritual slumber and help them stay awake” and even today is “still trying to wake people up.”  He says of Yeshua’s teaching that it all “has an antecedent in Jewish scriptures and writing.  There is no new material, but he reworks it in a brilliant way,” and says of the Apostolic Writings “[i]f Jews found the New Testament today (and there had been no successful Christian movement), they would see all of it as Jewish thinking.  Totally Jewish.”

Regarding Yeshua’s teaching on the Torah, Finley makes a comparison to the car’s owner manual: “You never read it. It’s true. But you don’t need it to drive. Don’t mistake the handbook for driving, or a map for the true landscape.” and says that Yeshua preached metanoia and thinking in a new way over “Reason and Rule of Law”.  He calls for such “a change of spirit” and admonished the congregation to “open yourself to the changed consciousness which Jesus is teaching!”.  Remarkably, he calls Jews “Grace-challenged” and says that “Christians always teach on Grace so we decided that it must not be a Jewish thing. So we neglect it,” yet “grace is present throughout the Torah.”

Finley says to ask Gentile Christians questions like “What does Grace feel like” to further ecumenical dialogue and says that Jews and Gentiles can common ground in seeking Malkuth Shamayim, the Kingdom of Heaven. Perhaps most shocking of all, he recommends to his congregation that they read one New Testament gospel book a month and to read them “raw”, saying “I want to read this man (Jesus) raw.  There is something in here for all people.”  Finley concludes by saying “Jesus has disorganized my consciousness.”

Finley’s commendable remarks about Yeshua are a whole world away from traditional Jewish characterizations of Yeshua as a mamzer, madman, magician or failed messiah.  They represent a larger trend in contemporary Judaism of looking more kindly on the Christian faith and improving relations between Jews and Christians.

Pastor Perry Noble, NewSpring Church, Anderson SC
Pastor Perry Noble, NewSpring Church, Anderson SC

THE SECOND MESSAGE was a sermon delivered December 24, 2014 by Pastor Perry Noble of NewSpring Church in Anderson, South Carolina, which is denominationally Baptist but with a contemporary/Emergent flavor of worship.  The blog PajamaPages first brought this sermon to my attention and has since followed the controversy closely.

Pastor Noble’s Christmas Eve teaching was “problematic for several reasons. First is the controversy of whether or not Noble dropped the N-bomb during the sermon.  On this point, I could be convinced to give Noble the benefit of the doubt.  Having been in situations where I’ve been on display front-and-center during congregational services, I can sympathize with the enormous pressure on ministers, clergy, chazzan and rabbis to perform 100% correctly and properly–while not looking stilted or nervous, of course.  NewSpring Church responded to an inquiry by PajamaPages denying use of the N-word by Noble either in this sermon or generally in conversation.  I’m satisfied that they agree in principle such behavior would be inappropriate.  Whether Noble did/could/should use the N-word on the pulpit or ever among polite company, I’ll leave to those closer in interest to the controversy.

My interest are Jewish, and what Noble implied in his sermon about Jews, Judaism and Torah could be construed as being just as inappropriate.  In either case, his statements were very, very doctrinally inaccurate. Noble starts his sermon with the following:

Earlier this year I was in Israel, and I was hanging out with my friend Ari. Now if you've been around NewSpring for a while, you've heard me talk about Ari. Ari to me is like Mr. Miyagi to the Karate Kid. I just love this man. He's full of wisdom. He loves Jesus.  He's 67 years old. He has fought in wars. He has built things. He's a musician. He's just an amazing man of God. He's teaching me the Bible. I'm trying to spend as much time with him as possible . . . .
We're talking about the Hebrew language. I don't speak Hebrew, and I'm sure many people  here don't speak Hebrew either. Ari looks at me, and he kind of smiles and says, "Do you know in the Hebrew there is no word for command?" I was like, "Actually, I didn't know that." I don't know where that came from. . . . He was baiting me. I sat there and thought for a minute, and I said, "Well then, Ari, what do you do with the Ten Commandments?  You're a Jewish person. What do you do with the Ten Commandments?" He looks at me and he goes, "They're not the Ten Commandments, Perry."
This is weird, because I've been around the Ten Commandments all my life, but in the original Hebrew language, there's no word for command, so it couldn't have been the Ten Commandments. He said it's best translated as these are the 10 sayings of God. Then he said you could also interpret it as the 10 promises of God. Instead of 10 commandments you have to keep  if you're going to be a follower of Jesus, they're actually 10 promises you can receive when you say yes to Jesus.

Noble then goes on to rewrite the Ten Commandments. No, I’m not joking. For instance, “You shall not have a graven image” becomes “you can be free from rituals and religion and trust in a relationship,” and “You shall not commit adultery” becomes “you do not have to live a life dominated by guilt, pain, and shame associated with sexual sin,” etc.

PajamaPages does a reasonable job critiquing Noble’s teaching from a Christian perspective, and I won’t rewrite their blogpost. From an Messianic perspective, I’ll add the following.

First, there’s the matter of “Ari from Israel”.  For Noble’s sake, I’m going to assume that Ari is a real person and not a literary device.  If the conversation were not real–and represented ideas that Noble himself came up with on his own or thought factual after his own (lack of) study–then his sermon would be even more reckless and inexcusable than it seems now.

It’s somewhat telling that Noble refers to Ari as a “Mr. Miyagi”.  Someone should inform Noble that, just like not all Japanese people are karate masters, not all Israelis are biblical or theological experts.  And even if Ari had some strong background of Jewish learning and observance, not everything every sophisticated Jew says about the Bible would be acceptable to someone holding traditional Christian beliefs, especially of the Evangelical Protestant variety.  I certainly would not take something one Jew said one time and use it as a basis for Old Testament theological views being broadcast on Christmas Eve to over 32,000 people!

It is troubling how Noble has not learned anything else about Judaism that would have put his conversation with Ari in context, not in his twenty-year career as a minister, nor in his preceding 30 credit hours towards a Masters of Divinity at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Even a minute of searching on Biblehub would have given you the word Mitzvah. A few more minutes would have lead to a Wikipedia article detailing the (pretty much non-optional) duty to perform mitzvot traditional Jewish life. And if Noble had read the Scripture “raw” he would have seen the majority of the biblical canon devoted to the giving mitzvot to Israel, warnings of what would happen in those mitzvot were broken, accounts of how they were broken and how God punished Israel for breaking them, and how God plans to renew and repair Israel so they can keep the mitzvot in the age to come . . . mitzvot that don’t get rewritten and will last through the end of the world.

Pastor Noble now admits in an apology letter (also fisked thoroughly by PajamaPages) that he failed to understand certain concepts or conduct adequate research prior to giving the sermon. Granted, I can see how he could’ve gotten his wires crossed. The Ten Commandments (עֲשֶׂ֖רֶת הַדְּבָרִֽים in Hebrew) roughly translates as “Ten Things” and “Torah” can translate as “instruction”.  Torah mitzvot, as a general proposition, are not applicable to Christian Gentile life the same way as they are to Israel, and there are ways for a Gentile minister to express that to a congregation without taking a supersessionist position.  But even from Noble’s apology statement it’s apparent that he does not have anything approaching a coherent understanding of the nature of the Torah and its vital importance to God’s Kingdom, nor it would seem he has any particular interest in forming one.  He’s barely to the point where he can be called “unlearned” on the subject.

If it seems like I am being overly critical here, keep in mind that I’m not talking about some sidewalk corner preacher or backwoods church in the middle of nowhere.  NewSpring is a megachurch with reputably over 32,000 people, the fourth largest church in the Southern Baptist denomination and one of the fastest growing churches in the country. That’s an army of 32,000 Christians who are being just as miseducated about the Bible, and just as misinformed about the nature of Torah and Judaism, as the crusader armies of the Dark Ages.  Learning is too far advanced, history is too far progressed, and the hour is too close to twilight for this type of theological malpractice to go ignored.

THESE ARE STRANGE DAYS when a Jew can leave a Reformed Synagogue convinced he should read the gospels and a Christian can leave a Baptist church convinced he doesn’t have to feel guilty about adultery, but that is where we find ourselves at the beginning of year 2015 of the common era. What, then, are the takeaways from such odd circumstances?

First, I would give the same advice to Rabbi Finley as I would to Pastor Noble.  If they have not already, they should become acquainted with Messianic Jewish thought and scholarship regarding the nature of Yeshua and Israel, and possibly arrange for some communication with a good MJ Rabbi.  If Mordecai Finley had Yeshua “disorganize his conscience” he may be interested in meeting other Jews who had the same experience.  If Perry Noble likes talking with Jews who believe in Jesus I can think of a few more he can talk to.

Second, these are the reasons “Why We Fight” so to speak.  In these last days, we have an Israel with an inexpressable yearning to discern Yeshua in the Torah and a Church that cannot discern Jesus in the Old Testament.  We are called to be the Body of Messiah for Israel and the Israel for the Body of Christ, to strengthen and edify both.

Finally, we need to recognize these things as signs of Yeshua’s soon return: Both Gentile falling away in the Church and a return of the Jewish people back not just to Israel but also to Hashem.  We owe it to both Jews who come and Gentiles who remain to prepare for his coming, hopefully even in our days, swiftly and soon.


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