Hebrew Roots—Why Bother?


I was recently challenged by someone who follows my blog.  He wanted to know why I am studying Hebrew, and why I’m fascinated with Jewish celebrations.  He saw it as a form of legalism from which Jesus has freed us.

If we’re not careful, following the Jewish traditions could lead to legalism: no pork, no driving or any other kind of work on the Sabbath, keeping two sets of dishes, etc.  But, really, legalism is something we risk any time that we seek to get closer to God.  Our meat brains try to boil faith down to methods: go to church every week, recite the Lord’s Prayer, and abstain from certain foods or drinks in order to please God.  Methods don’t bring us closer to God.  If you use a method with your spouse or friends, you might fool them for a little while, but not for long.  And you will never, ever fool God.  God isn’t really interested in whether you attend this church or that, or whether you pray the Lord’s Prayer once a week or every day.  If you’re just going through the motions, substituting a method for your relationship with God, guess what, you won’t ever get closer to Him than you are right now.

Are you satisfied to stay where you are right now in your spiritual walk?  You shouldn’t be!  You should never be satisfied to let your relationship with the Lord stagnate.  We were made to be in relationship with our Creator.  It’s not about what you do, it’s about being with Him.  Enoch walked with God.  He didn’t plant churches all over Asia, preach to 10,000 people in a stadium, or drive all the snakes out of Ireland.  He pleased God so much that out of all humanity, God raptured Enoch (and later Elijah).  Jesus said:

Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father who is in Heaven.  Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your Name and in Your Name drive out demons and in Your Name perform many miracles?”  Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from Me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:21-23, emphasis mine).

Works are good, and we each have our own works that God has assigned to each of us to do.  But works alone will not get you into Heaven.  Likewise, saying the prayer of salvation and continuing to do the things you’ve always done.  Sorry, but that’s not going to get you into Heaven, either.  If you need clarity on the need to stop sinning (even though we all do sin from time to time), read 1 John.  It’s short enough to read all in one sitting, and if you don’t understand it the first time through, read it again.  John explains how we must live as children of the light (not sinning), but that if we do sin, we have Jesus as our defense attorney.  It’s all about your heart attitude, and your heart attitude will bring a change in your life if you’re really seeking God and His Kingdom.

So what does all this have to do with Hebrew roots?  I’m glad you asked!  The first century Church (don’t think building, think people) met in people’s houses.  They ate meals together.  They read the scriptures together.  The Holy Scriptures in that time was the Old Testament.  They also passed around and copied the letters of Paul (and Peter, John, and others) and the Gospels, which were understood to be inspired, and therefore holy.  But they didn’t do as some churches do nowadays and discard or give the Old Testament less significance.  They understood the Gospels and the entrance of Messiah (Jesus) to be a continuation and a completion of what had been written in the Old Testament.

Jesus, Himself, said: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished,” (Matthew 5:18, emphasis mine).

The word “Law” in Hebrew is Torah—the five first books of the Bible.  And, remember, Jesus was a Jewish man talking to Jewish men.  Is everything accomplished?  No.  There are still prophecies yet to be fulfilled—Old Testament prophecies.

But let’s go back to the issue of legalism: Jesus addressed the issue of legalism many times.  The Pharisees were always complaining about Him healing on the Sabbath, claiming that He was doing work and violating God’s Law.  They complained that His disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating, as all Jews were supposed to do.  And after His resurrection, Peter and others went into the house of Cornelius, when entering a gentile’s house was strictly forbidden and would make a Jew ceremonially unclean.

Does any of this contradict what Jesus said about Law in Matthew 5:18, above?  No.  A Messianic friend explained to me that the Jews were so afraid of accidentally violating the Law that they built rules around the Law that protected the Law by serving as a sort of virtual fence.  Then just to be sure, they built another set of rules around that first set of fence rules, and then another around the second set of fence rules.  That is how the Ten Commandments became 613 Rabbinical Laws[1].  Here is what Jesus had to say about those Rabbinical Laws:

Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?  For God said, “Honor your father and mother” and “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.”  But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it.  Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.  You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.  They worship Me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules,” (Matthew 15:3-9, emphasis mine).

So, in fact, Jesus was declaring the Jews free from the legalism of rabbinical tradition.  And He gave us a way to simplify the letter of the Law into two easy-to-remember principles: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40).  If you let love motivate you, then you will not break the Law.  But we are often fickle and weak, so sometimes we can’t sustain the level of love for God or for others or even for ourselves.  That’s where the Holy Spirit is indeed our Helper.

Aha!  The Holy Spirit, mysterious Third Person of the Godhead.  The Holy Spirit is not often named in the Old Testament as God, but given the things that Jesus told us about Him, it is easy to see the fingerprints of the Holy Spirit at work.  For example, He hovered over the face of the deep in the first chapter of Genesis.  He led Israel out of Egypt as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night in Exodus.  He told Moses when to call the Holy Convocations in Leviticus.  He had Balaam bless Israel when he had been paid to curse them in Numbers.  He transferred His anointing to Joshua in Deuteronomy.  The Holy Spirit was in the whirlwind and was the still, small voice of God speaking to Elijah.

But do we pay attention to that still, small voice?  Because the Holy Spirit is so quiet and gentle, it is easy to ignore Him in the midst of the clamor of unholy voices (both demonic and human) and our own screaming fleshly desires.  Here’s what the Apostle Paul had to say about the Holy Spirit:

Do not quench (suppress or subdue) the [Holy] Spirit; do not spurn the gifts and utterances of the prophets [do not depreciate prophetic revelations nor despise inspired instruction or exhortation or warning].  But test and prove all things [until you can recognize] what is good; [to that] hold fast, (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21, AMP).

So you can see that it takes your cooperation, remaining alert and teachable, to learn how to hear the Holy Spirit’s instruction and exhortation.

Now, what I say next might not sit well with those who question the value of exploring the Hebrew roots of our faith, so I say this only for myself, and not as a commandment that all Christians must do: I feel the tug of the Holy Spirit to study Hebrew, to visit Israel, and to celebrate the Lord’s festivals.

More on all this later.  God has hidden treasure within His Word for those who will search for it.  God is good!

[1] In thinking of the 613 rabbinical traditions, consider the Biblical significance of the number 613:

Six is the number of man, and carries with it the taint of humanism.  Man was created on the sixth day.  Goliath had a brother who was also a giant and had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot (2 Samuel 21:20).  For more see: http://www.biblestudy.org/bibleref/meaning-of-numbers-in-bible/6.html.

Thirteen is the number of rebellion and lawlessness.  Nimrod, the giant who built the Tower of Babel to initiate rebellion against God, was the thirteenth in Ham’s line after the flood.  For more see: http://www.biblestudy.org/bibleref/meaning-of-numbers-in-bible/13.html.