Several new (old?) doctrines have begun taking new life among the Christian community, and have caught fire in some circles, being hailed as a modern spiritual awakening of sorts. Among these, is the Hebrew Roots doctrine. As with any doctrine, only holding it against the light of scriptural scrutiny can tell us whether it is sound, or false teaching. We will now examine the Hebrew Roots Movement (HRM) under the lens of God’s Word, and see what we discover. This examination will not include the history of the modern HRM movement, but a detailed synopsis can be found here however.
A practical definition of HRM could be summarized in the words of Richard G. Fisher:
Here, then, is a loose definition of the Hebrew Roots Movement. It is a very modern movement that insists that we must resurrect first-century Judaism (our Jewish Roots) and the milieu and lifestyle of first-century Jews and impose them on both Jewish and non-Jewish believers. This is not just an academic study to better understand Scripture and its setting but is rather a movement of restoration that claims that the church has moved off its Jewish foundation and must return to a more Jewish way of life to be authentic. (LINK)
Fisher continues by driving at the open questions at the heart of the doctrine:
So if we want to be like Jesus, does that mean that we must become observant Jews, as some allege? Is that what being like Jesus really means? Should Gentile believers try to be Messianic Jews? Can they? Should Gentiles don a yarmulke, worship in a synagogue, blow a shofar, wear a prayer shawl, call Jesus Yeshua or Yeshu, keep the Old Testament feasts and dietary laws, and give their pastors the title of Rabbi, even though Matthew:23:8 says otherwise? Are Jewish ceremonies and practices efficacious?
A clear distinction is in order first and foremost: Messianic Judaism is a wonderful movement of the Holy Spirit, that demonstrates God’s love for the people of Jewish blood, and His desire for them to accept His Son Jesus Christ as their Messiah, against the grain of Judaism at large, which rejects Christ, and is still looking for the first appearance of the Mashiach (מָשִׁ֫יחַ), the Messiah. However, closely associated with this movement of faith among the Jewish people, is the idea that one must continue to observe the laws of Moses in the Torah in order to be considered a faithful and obedient servant of YHWH the Most High (יְהֹוָה). First we should note a glaring distinction between the two groups – those who make up the HRM are almost exclusively non-Jewish; and certainly not all Messianic Jewish congregations teach the continued keeping of the law of Moses.
First, we know that as Gentile believers, we are grafted into the root of Israel according to Romans 11:
For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. – Romans 11:16-18
This distinction is important, because arguments that challenge the Hebrew Roots doctrine, do not challenge the actual Hebrew Roots of Christianity itself, which are made clear in Romans 11.
Let’s examine the theology behind the HRM. It is important to note, the HRM does not officially hold that keeping the laws of the Torah are necessary for salvation, although some of its proponents would argue otherwise. However, they do promote the idea that once one is born again, one would have an inner desire to follow these laws, and failure to do so is interpreted as one not truly being born of God.
Hebrew Roots followers believe that sin is breaking the written Torah (cf. 1 John 3:4), all of the purity laws such as dietary restrictions and sabbath keeping are in the written Torah, thus it is sinful to not keep the sabbath and to eat forbidden animals, among other social and religious observance laws. It is also true, according to Hebrew Roots followers, that those who are truly born of God will not continue in sin (cf. 1John 3:9), therefore, if you are not moved to keep the sabbath or to keep dietary restrictions, you must not truly be born of God. (LINK)
Much of the HRM doctrine is based on a shallow rendering of the book of 1 John. Chapter 2 contains the following:
Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.
Brethren, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you heard from the beginning. – 1 John 2:3-7
A cursory reading of this passage seems to make the case that the “commandments from the beginning” are to be followed, just as Jesus followed in the ways of the law. However, we cannot simply stop our exploration there. In the Greek, the original language of the New Testament manuscripts, the word “entolḗ” (ἐντολή) is used for “commandments”. Strong’s defines this as “injunction, i.e. an authoritative prescription:—commandment, precept”. We find this word used all throughout the New Testament, especially in the words of Jesus Himself.
He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? – Matthew 15:3
So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One,that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” – Matthew 19:17
“For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men —the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.” He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. – Mark 7:8-9
“You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ ” – Mark 10:19
Jesus seems to exclusively refer to “commandments” as the 10 Commandments, even citing them, and chastises those who would keep the traditions of men. Never once does He uphold the ceremonial and exhaustive edicts detailed in the Torah. In fact, when His disciples were unclear as to what is to be followed, Jesus quite clearly sums it up.
“Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” Then His disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.” Then Peter answered and said to Him, “Explain this parable to us.” So Jesus said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” – Matthew 15:11-20
The laws of Moses clearly define what is clean and unclean, what foods are to be eaten and avoided, how hands are to be washed, and all manner of detailed ceremonial practices that must be followed in order to satisfy the law as it was given to the Israelites through Moses. However, Jesus clearly explains to His disciples that it is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out. This is in direct conflict with the laws of the Torah, which specifically outlaw unclean food. Jesus is very clearly focused on the heart, not one’s outer actions or works.
This debate was further examined in the book of Acts.
But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” – Acts 15:5
The Pharisees were clearly citing the law of Moses in the Torah, as had always been taught. However, the issue was taken up by the apostles and the Jerusalem Council. Peter addresses this:
Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” – Acts 15:6-11
This is extraordinary. Not only does Peter declare that the Gentiles need not adhere to the laws of Moses, he declares these laws to be a “yoke on the neck of the disciples”. Certainly if God intended on believers obeying these laws, such a declaration by one of the most preeminent disciples wouldn’t not have been included in the Word of God.
Messianic Jewish believer Stephen Katz agrees:
“Much of the Jewish Roots Movement is actually based on later Jewish/rabbinic tradition. More importantly, the question of whether Gentiles need to add Jewish lifestyle and return to Jewish roots was settled by the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15. The remarkable news of the Gospel is that, in Y’shua, Jews and Gentiles have direct access to God” (“The Jewish Roots Movement: Flowers and Thorns,” March 1, 2001).
But what of Peter’s position on the matter? Earlier in Acts, he has a vision:
The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” – Acts 10:9-15
Again, this is very telling. Until this vision, Peter himself believed the laws of Moses to be the definitive guide concerning cleanliness. This vision carried with it a double meaning as well. Shortly after it, Peter was called to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. This caused quite a stir considering Peter was Jewish and the people he was meeting with were Gentiles. However, because of his vision, Peter declared:
Then he said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. – Acts 10:28
God was declaring through Peter that it was no longer the law of Moses that declared one clean before the Lord, but Christ alone through the working of the Holy Spirit. Again, the law is superseded by its own fulfillment in Christ. Paul spends most of his ministry declaring believers free from the law, and his letter to the Galatians sums it up rather succinctly. The Galatians were Judaizers, and were practicing and teaching that the law of Moses must be kept in accordance with the covenant made with Israel in the Torah. Paul addresses this:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? Have you suffered so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” – Galatians 3:1-6
Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. – Galatians 3:13-14
How then has the law of old been superseded by the law of grace through faith, if Deuteronomy 12:32 declares “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.” ? First of all, we must understand that the covenant at Sinai between God and Israel really was just for Israel.
He declares His word to Jacob, His statutes and His judgments to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation; And as for His judgments, they have not known them. – Psalm 147:19-20
God has always maintained a separation between Israel and everybody else. Israel was set apart from the beginning as His people. So is Israel still bound to the old covenant, if they are redeemed in Christ? First, it is important to note that God’s law was not flawed or imperfect. It was His standard which, if kept, would bring life. However, it was not kept. Israel, not God, broke the covenant. And for their lawlessness, their blood was required to satisfy the requirements of the covenant. However, out of His eternal love for His people, God offered the blood of His Son Jesus Christ to be shed in their place. Even during this, Israel continued to reject God and the salvation brought to them in Christ. So a new subset was born – the church. The church in no way replaced Israel, which is flawed doctrine known as replacement theology; nor did Israel supersede the church. The church of Christ became the bridge for all believers, Jew or Gentile, to be accepted into the Body of Christ. Upon the death and resurrection of Christ, a new blood covenant was established. Instead of one’s own blood being required to pay the penalty of sin, Christ’s blood became sufficient for the permanent propitiation for all sin for all of mankind.
The late Dave Hunt puts it this way:
What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one.
Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. – Galatians 3:19-25
There’s really no gray area here whatsoever. The law points to Christ and the need for Christ. It was added because of our sin, until the point our sin could be washed away by the perfect blood of the Lamb of God. The law illuminates the path directly to Christ, our final destination. Once we have arrived, we no longer need to follow the path that got us there!
There is much more that could be expounded on with this topic. We’ve barely scratched the surface here. We will add more in the near future and continue to hold this teaching against the perfect light of scripture.
What do you think? Tell us in the comments below!
Torah Observance Redux: http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Articles/Redux/redux.html
Empowered by Christ: http://www.empoweredbychrist.org/the-hebrew-roots-movement.html
Seek God: http://www.seekgod.ca/hr/hrfaqs.htm