The Parting of the Ways

Our hearts break as we understand that those chosen people who received the loving revelation of God, His character and ways, do not share our belief in the Messiah, Yeshua. But how has this fact impacted the church body and our faith today? 

It is helpful for us to consider this question, to form an understanding of the development of the church body. This development took place in context of its Jewish identity, through Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah. As Christians, reflecting upon ecclesiastic issues empowers us to understand our faith and purpose. This allows us to form views and opinions which inform our active choices as believers. It is vital in our witness to Jewish people who do not believe in Jesus. 

Let us review the facts from the beginning; Jesus was crucified by the Romans as King of the Jews. At the point of our Lord’s death, He was known as a Jewish Rabbi, itinerant preacher and leader of a group of subversive Jewish people. Under Jesus’ direction, this group of Jewish people were proclaiming a distinct view of their faith, and living a daily lifestyle that reflected these strong beliefs. 

From here is difficult to comprehend how by the beginning of the second century AD, Christians were no longer connected with Judaism, Jewish people and society. We know from historical records that a divide had appeared because we find that in 96 AD, the emperor Nerva had clarified by law, that Christians were not be taxed with the extra tax that Jewish people were forced to pay to Rome, because he determined that neither gentile nor Jewish believers in Christ were Jewish. What this reveals is the extent of the division, but also some of the causes of the church’s separation from its Jewish roots, often referred to as “the parting of the ways”. 

A great change took place in the early church, as evidenced by the book of Acts. Following the Pentecost of Acts 2 (1-13), God caused many people to hear and believe the gospel, with incredible power and therefore incredible numbers. To the Jew first indeed, as we see that God added 3,000 Jewish believers from many nations and cultures in just one day (Following Peter’s preaching in Acts 2:13-39). The disciples had developed their own understanding and the Holy Spirit brought to life the revelation of the ages; the salvation of humankind through the Messiah’s sacrifice.  

But then a new revelation came; that God had called gentiles into the inheritance of His own people. By Acts 10:47, Peter has come to the same undeniable conclusion that drove the apostle Paul to preach the gospel relentlessly to gentiles, that the true revelation of salvation is the mystery that was ungrasped by the chosen people up until this point; “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 3:6)  

This is where we grapple with the divine and the human, the holy and the profane; this wonderful grace and mercy that showed the heart of God; His desire that all should be saved through His only begotten son, Jesus, caused a difficulty to His own people. The consequence of the disciples sharing the gospel with gentiles caused many gentiles to receive faith in Jesus. In this, the Jewish people had to follow the example of God in laying down their lives for  others to be drafted into the Kingdom.

As the gentile believers began to outnumber the Jewish believers, and the Jewish believers themselves continued to be rejected from their own community due to their faith in Yeshua as Messiah of the Jewish people, a separation and void appeared between the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, and the practice of the faith as a church body. This is because those who were able to share Judaic revelation, were pushed out by new schools of thought and practice informed by the new majority group; gentile Christians. 

The roots of this are clear in the New Testament, the letters of Paul addressing the balance between observing the divine revelation of Judaism but understanding that this revelation is only understood, and indeed complete, in light of the Messiah, make clear to us that a navigation of scripture in light of the mystery of Christ’s atonement, was birthed. But sharing this revelation was complicated by the challenges of ideology, society, culture and geography.   

As human beings, we are loaded with ideas and thoughts about ourselves and the world around us, which we have absorbed from childhood, from our parents, our community, our culture, our faith, our government. They are our “normal” but they are peculiar and unique when compared with other cultures, societies and even families! As the church began to navigate Christianity without the Jewish disciples who had passed away, and relied on their own interpretation of scripture, their own Greek lens coloured their view. Just as today, our Western worldview colours how we interpret the Old Testament Scriptures in a way that differs from Orthodox Jewish people, and from believers in Christ who live in the Far East for example, and are influenced by the culture and understanding of the ancient ways of life of the Far East. 

We are not neutral readers of the text, we are postmodern interpreters and the early gentile church was interpreting the scripture according to the dominant, prevailing schools of thought influenced by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Much of Paul’s writing to the gentile church was navigating the interpretation of Jesus’ teachings in light of Judaic scriptures and the Greek philosophical thought of the time, and showing that Christ’s way was a “third way”; superseding all by the superiority of the Christ Himself. 

The “parting of the ways” between the church and its Judaic roots, to the point of persecuting Jewish people through the centuries, is not about theological differences but ideological difference. The separation of the body of Christ from the very scriptures of the New Testament, is about people, societies, and institutions, not abstract truth claims. Human weaknesses and limitations have caused this divide.  

As in the example above, of Jewish people paying a tax to Rome, which Jewish Christians did not, would have led to some upset and animosity by the oppressed Jewish People. Likewise, there is incredible misinterpretation amongst the European church of the centuries, evidenced by arguments and beliefs revealed by historical theological writing. One example is the myth that arose amongst some gentile believers in the early church, that Pauls’ personal trip to Damascus, was evidence of anti-emissaries being sent all over the diaspora regions of the Jewish community, by the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem. This is unsubstantiated and unrealistic.   

The misinterpretation of the disciples and their writings has led to beliefs and behaviours that are bigoted; yes, the disciples were bold in condemning the attitudes and behaviour amongst their people that had led them to be blind to their Saviour and to conspire to His death. We all condemn what is wrong in our own society. These scriptures written by the disciples can never be an excuse for anti-Semitism because they were written by Jewish people, with the clear and repeated caveat that rejection of the Messiah is like all things, under the control of God who uses His divine wisdom to work all things for the good of those called to His salvation. (Romans 8:28)  

Paul spends three chapters of the book of Romans (9-11) clarifying the reality that the temporary blindness of the Jewish people is for a reason and a season! To allow gentiles to enter the Kingdom, to cause a mutual understanding, and then unity between Jew and gentile, so that as we have received and benefited from the Jewish revelation of God, we may likewise share of our own unique experience as gentiles, of the incredible grace of God. This is the one new man!  

John says that Jesus was full of truth and grace (John 1:14). It makes sense that as the Jewish people bring their revelation of truth (received through scripture, and experience as descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), that we gentiles bring our experience of grace (as those who did not know salvation but were chosen and called by God), together and become complete, reflecting the fullness and wholeness of Christ. Let us take this understanding to our fellow believers so that united, we can offer a great witness to the Jewish people of the glory of Christ, and thereby move them to the jealousy which Paul says will cause them to revere and desire Jesus. (Romans 10:19; 11:11 and 11:14) 

Dr Leopold Cohn, founder of Chosen People Ministries

The crowd of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) referred to in the Bible, has grown exponentially over the thousands of years that have passed, since the writer of the epistle reflected on those who has preceded him and his brethren. As we now ponder those who we know and those whom we know of, that have lived as witnesses of the light and compassion of Jesus, we have godly heroes to whom we look and admire” (Psalm 16:3) 

One of these exemplary witnesses is Dr Leopold Cohn, respected Rabbi and the founder of Chosen People Ministries. In 1862, life began for Leopold in the ghetto of a town called Berezna, Eastern Hungary. Orphaned at the age of seven years, it was the crushing loneliness and desperate battle for survival of this tragic childhood, that Leopold reflected upon in later years, as the training ground which taught him to trust wholeheartedly in God.  

This trust and desire for God led Leopold to train with exceptional diligence, to become an ordained Rabbi and at this time he was also blessed with a wonderful wife, called Rose. In accordance with tradition, Leopold moved into his wife’s paternal home to devote himself to studying sacred texts. 

Leopold had two matters that God had put upon his heart and like Jacob, he wrestled with them in tension with his absolute love and trust in the Lord. The first of these matters was the exile of the Jewish people from their homeland and the enduring suffering and loss that had brought for thousands of years.  

The wait for the Messiah to bring deliverance from their exile was the second and most pressing matter for Leopold; in the desperation and sense of wandering he was experiencing in being Jewish in Europe, he took an active approach to understand the coming of the Messiah; searching the Talmud earnestly. 

As part of his daily prayer and devotion, Leopold would recite the twelfth article of the Jewish Creed; “I believe with a perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah and, though He tarry, yet will I wait daily for His coming.” As we find in our personal devotions, the consistency of our prayers leads to deeper desire for that object that we seek, but also works a cyclical effect, causing our hearts to be reshaped by the new and good desires we choose: “As a man thinks, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7). 

For Leopold, this daily repetition led to a fiery and unquenchable passion for the coming of the Messiah, but he was challenged and perplexed by the seeming contradiction in the evolution of the Talmudic school of thought, about the timing of the Messiah’s coming: The Talmudic literature states that the world will stand for 6,000 years in total, with the Messiah coming after the first 4,000 years, and His reign commencing for the remaining 2,000 years of the world as we know it, with wicked kingdoms destroyed.  

This is affirmed by the Holy Scriptures; in the book of Daniel, there is remarkable clarity and context for the coming of the Messiah, and Leopold had the wisdom and boldness of Daniel in identifying that which had been covered up for a long time; that Daniel 9:24 reveals that the coming of the Messiah ought to have taken place 400 years after Daniel received the prophecy of the 70 weeks.  

This did not appear to be addressed, except in philosophical terms, in the Talmudic writings that follow this period in which the Messiah ought to have appeared. Not only this, but it had become culturally unacceptable within the Jewish community to raise challenges or doubts, as to the apparent failure of the Messiah to appear at the appointed time.  

Leopold found this to be the case when he raised it at Hanukkah, with his own congregation during his service. A pattern emerged that day of intense resistance and active aggression against Leopold for raising this thread of thought, regarding the timing of the Messiah’s coming. Leopold was essentially forced to flee to New York, America, in his quest for knowledge and understanding, as that was a city renowned in the world at that time for both a thriving Jewish community, and a progressive and intellectual way of life.  

In New York, Leopold had a divine appointment he had not foreseen, coming across a sign for a “Jewish Meeting” during his daily walk, he entered to find a Messianic congregation. Shocked by the strangeness of a congregation at once so familiar, and yet so alien in its unorthodox customs of uncovered heads and mixed seating, Leopold left, but not before getting the home address of the Pastor.  

A visit to the home of the Pastor, revealed him to be an accomplished and respected Talmudic scholar himself and Leopold accepted a copy of the New Testament from him. Leopold raced home to read the New Testament, which he did voraciously! Following 14 hours of continual reading, he concluded that he did not understand much of it but was clear about the parts he could; that the name of the Messiah was Yeshua, that he was born in Bethlehem, lived in Jerusalem, taught the Jewish people and did indeed come at just the time appointed by the prophet Daniel. Leopold stated that in this knowledge, his joy was boundless.   

That joy was almost immediately juxtaposed with sorrow, as his host and community, initially so warm and respectful to Leopold, turned quickly to the opposite extreme. Shouting and abusing him as stupid and arrogant, foolish and deceitful, members of the Jewish community confronted Leopold with the fact that this Yeshua of whom he spoke, was in fact the Jesus of the Christians, who had been persecuting the Jews for centuries in their exile. 

Leopold was stunned and confused, fearing that he would be committing idolatry by believing in Yeshua, if he was one and the same as Jesus. In what was now a mark of his character and habit of a lifetime; he sought scriptural understanding. In the light of the New Testament, Leopold found the Law and Prophets, illuminated by the light of the World, Jesus. Leopold saw that Yeshua and Jesus were one and the same, and that chapter 53 of Isaiah in the Old Testament scriptures, was a clear and parallel prophecy of the life, suffering and death of Jesus.  

Finding this truth which refuted every other belief and possibility, Leopold separated himself from his old way of life and being, to become a new creation in Christ. Leopold had received revelation of the Messiah and the long awaited and desired salvation of the Jewish people.  Unable to keep this truth to himself, Leopold began to declare this world changing revelation to his community.  

The price of making such a drastic, unorthodox and taboo change of mind and lifestyle, caused him to be ostracised by the Jewish community, his New York compatriots even writing to his wife and children in Hungary to tell them of Leopold’s “apostasy”. Being estranged from his wife and children, who cut off communication with him, rejected and abused by the orthodox community of Jews who inclined to violence against him, Leopold was urgently sent away under cover of dark.  

Much like the apostle Paul, Leopold fled, as it was arranged by the Pastor he had received the New Testament from, for him to go to Scotland and live in Christian community. At Barklay Church, Edinburgh, Leopold was received by an understanding and kind Christian community whose hearts God had prepared to receive him, but also to understand the profundity of witness to the Jewish people. This love for the Jewish people was evidenced in Edinburgh from letters of encouragement and prayer, reaching Leopold as he himself went through the dark night of the soul, which those on their way to their God ordained destiny must face.  

Persevering, Leopold took baptism and made a public declaration of faith and confession in Christ. Incredibly, Leopold did this knowing in his spirit in the weeks before his baptism, that he would face the fury of Satan and the gates of hell in opposition. What can the opposition of the enemy mean in context of the glory, truth and victory of Christ? Nothing, and therefore not only did Leopold take baptism, but he returned to New York to persevere in ministry to his beloved community, and God’s chosen people, the Jews. 

Such was Leopold’s passion for his people, that not only did he secure a building in Brownsville for preaching and evangelism in the surrounding areas, but he also set about in practical mission, alleviating the physical suffering of the many Jewish immigrants, who needed food, clothing and basic necessities and support, as they flooded into New York.  

Whilst Leopold’s ministry grew quickly and was having a great impact, he was facing persecution from his own community and the Christian community was slow in aiding or supporting him. God’s grace shone bright in the darkness and Leopold’s wife and children were not only reconciled to him, but came to faith and joined him in New York! What joy and affirmation of faith must have come upon Leopold in this greatest of consolations? The unity of Leopold, Rose and their children is what carried them through the poverty, suffering and persecution they suffered as they persevered in Jewish Mission. 

The resistance Leopold and his family faced is revealing of the harrowing persecution the Jewish people had themselves faced for many centuries; accused by the Christian church of being subhuman and treated as such. The deep trauma of this shocking discrimination, caused violent outbursts because the community feared that if they allowed any of member to turn from worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they would never be rescued by their Messiah, and their exile from Israel would be prolonged. The sad reality is that the established church had for many centuries, disenfranchised Jewish believers, and marred their own witness of Jesus to the Jewish community, through their aggressive and violent persecution of them.  

In this confused and fearful climate, Leopold persevered in loving his people, sharing the gospel and serving the poor. Though persecuted even within his own ministry, even by those who had come to faith through his love and bravery, as well as those angered on the outside, Leopold bore his sorrows privately as he carried the great weight of his personal cross.  

He was aware of the importance of his witness and encouragement for the sake of the gospel, and Leopold continued to hope, continued to be kind and upbeat. This is a great testament to Leopold’s character, that though he had such a sensitive spirit, earnestly seeking relationship with God and keeping his heart tender for his community, he was resilient in the bitter and vehement persecution that continually accompanied him. 

This perseverance resulted in over 1,000 Jewish people coming to faith in Yeshua, and the kind of community impact that caused people from all aspects of the diverse society of New York to respect and honour Leopold, standing with him to the end of his life, as God caused His own favour to rest upon his servant.  

This favour assured Leopold and those around him, whether friend or foe, that he was a beloved and obedient servant of the Most High; Wheaton College in Illinois, a prestigious and noted Christian educational institution, conferred an honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity upon him in 1930, when the persecution against him was at its most intense. 

Dr Leopold Cohn passed away on 19th December 1937, and the ministry he had founded in 1892, came to be known as Chosen People Ministries, named after a newsletter he produced from the early days of his ministry. By god’s grace, the legacy of Dr Cohn now continues, 127 years later, as Chosen People Ministries operates internationally, serving in 17 countries, including Israel.

Ruth: A Witness Against Terrorism

This week’s celebrations for Shavuot have taken place under tense circumstances for Israel and the Diaspora. We have seen images of warfare for over a week, as Hamas launches attacks against Israel and the IDF act to defend the nation. We have also seen the Jewish community in the UK come under attack, as convoys of vehicles gathered to shout obscene and shocking antisemitic abuse through Finchley, London. Also in the South East of England, at the weekend, a rabbi was verbally and physically assaulted, with antisemitic slurs hurled at him, and his belongings stolen.  

What a juxtaposition between a holy, solemn, yet joyous and beautiful festival, taking place in the midst of such violence and ugly hate! Shavuot is celebrated in accordance with Exodus 34:22 and it is a celebration of the receipt of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which took place seven weeks following Passover. 

This year, Shavuot fell on Sunday 16th May 2021, so the Jewish people will have enjoyed a festival meal, opened in ceremony by the women and girls of each house, and then an all-night reading of scripture and religious texts. As day broke on Monday, the Jewish people took the opportunity to recite morning prayers at the earliest opportunity, to commemorate the joy of receiving revelation from God, of true worship and service.  

Homes and synagogues would have decorated with beautiful greenery, harvest plants and grains, and women and girls will have adorned their heads with flower garlands. This signifies another celebratory aspect of this festival; Mount Sinai is said to have come into bloom upon the presence of the Lord, His glory and the revelation His truth. As the festival occurs at what is harvest time in Israel and many other nations, the theme of abundance and provision is central and gives the hope of a new, fruitful and healthy season.  

This is without doubt highlighted by the customary eating of dairy such as cheese and milk-based desserts, as it is believed that whilst the Hebrew people awaited instruction from God about the dietary guidance He would give them, they thought it best to eat a dairy based diet. 

There are special morning prayers for this festival, and as the reading of the book of Ruth is customary; it will have been read out in Jewish homes across the world on Monday. It is perhaps in the reading of this book of the Old Testament, that we find understanding and guidance in these troubled times for God’s chosen people. Much like the book of Esther which is read at Purim, the book of Ruth is also a book where God appears to be silent, as a lonely and vulnerable woman faces complex elemental and political systems. 

Ruth is in a most unenviable position as a homeless widow, who becomes a refugee in a nation that has hundreds of years of historical enmity and discord with her own. But unlike a refugee who flees to a nation where they may hope for a better life, Ruth goes to a nation where she knows she will face further hardship, as Naomi’s lamentations make clear.  

What is Ruth’s motivation? It is not survival, economy or even safety, but it is her values, which transcend self-preservation. Ruth values relationship, respect and integrity. Ruth’s order of priority is what explains her otherwise inexplicable decision-making process. It is love that leads her to leave her homeland with an aged mother-in-law, who complains and cries continually. It is love that leads Ruth to work in the heat of the day, gleaning from the charity of her deceased husbands’ relatives.  

The shame of people’s judgement since her husband’s death followed her from Moab, and her heart must have sunk as Boaz enquired about who she was, as she worked in his fields with the poorest of society. Yet her heart would not allow Ruth to abandon her mother-in-law, who had demonstrated a different culture to her, one unlike that which she had been immersed in since birth, but founded upon the revelation of God and His commands for human flourishing. What Ruth must have seen in Naomi and her God, was love, and love incites human beings to its pursuit! 

Therefore, Ruth worked in a field in a foreign land as a refugee, for love, because it was a worthwhile pursuit to her. How incredible Boaz must have seemed to Ruth as he, like Naomi, displayed the values of the Torah, founded on love for God and for neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:40). Is it any wonder that Ruth found even more bravery within her heart, now that she had made it to Israel, to lay at the feet of Boaz, with Naomi’s encouragement? 

What Ruth would not have realised, immediately, is the profundity of likeminded, loving, sacrificing and faithful people coming together in love, and in order to love. But the Bible tells us that one faithful person will put to flight a thousand and two shall put to flight 10,000 (Joshua 23:10)! In God’s Kingdom economics, multiplication and overflow are key principles. For this reason, Boaz and Ruth’s marriage forged in humility rather than pride of status, and in love as opposed to selfish ambition, brought about a vindication for Ruth, a witness to their community, and a royal lineage of Yeshua Himself! Ruth did indeed reap as she had sown, for God is not mocked (Galatians 6:7-8). 

This is the message we can all receive, along with Israel and the Jewish people at the conclusion of Shavuot 2021; that God will vindicate His people, for He is the just Judge of the whole world (Genesis 18:25). What an honour for the Jewish People, to still be standing as a witness to the Torah, the way of love, thousands of years after Ruth exemplified that God’s people and the righteous among the nations, unite for salvation. 

The book of Ruth and Festival of Shavuot this year is an exhortation to both the Jewish people and body of Christ, to continue in obedience, loyalty, love and integrity, whilst the conflict against the Jewish people continues to rage in Israel and amongst the Diaspora. As Israel continues to defend herself with military integrity against Hamas, as Christians, we must also ally our democracy with the Jewish People and uphold the truth.