Humble Uncertainty: A Narrower Path to a Greater Hope
The first time that I encountered the phrase “Jesus saves” was in 1969 when I was 11 years old. It appeared in the form of graffiti spray painted on a railroad trestle over the Arcadia Soda Shop on South Columbus Avenue where my friends and I would hang out after playing basketball. It didn’t take long for another, less religious “artist” to complete the thought with “and Esposito scores on the rebound.” Of course we were all amused by the irreverent hockey reference, though I confess that we didn’t completely understand it. I knew who Esposito was, Phil Esposito, the all-star center for the Boston Bruins. I also knew who Jesus was, Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings, a movie that had commanded my attention every time it was on television, and taught me everything I knew of Jesus at that time. And of course I knew that the new graffiti was a play on the word “saves,” but I didn’t fully get the joke. Why was Jesus saving in the first place, and from what? What did “Jesus saves” possibly mean?
I was already aware at this tender young age that the world was in need of saving. This was a time of turmoil and I was just becoming old enough to be aware of that. It was the height of the Vietnam War and every morning CBS News brought a new body count to our television, while every evening it documented the political unrest over the war. Living in an apartment building in a neighborhood of apartment buildings assured a high level of intimacy with our neighbors and a low level of privacy. The entire neighborhood was aware when one of its sons went off to war and even more painfully aware when one didn’t come home. It was less than a year since the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the Chicago Seven trials were still under way. Monthly air raid drills at William H. Holmes Elementary School served as a reminder that even school was not a completely safe place.
But what could Jesus do about any of that? If Jesus was saving anything he was sure taking his sweet time about it. My 11-year-old mind understood that a save was a physical act not unlike Eddie Giacoman kicking a Bobby Orr slap shot away from the goal with his leg pads, or in much grander style the God of Israel splitting the Red Sea so that the Children of Israel could escape the onslaught of Egyptian chariots pursuing them. But the Jesus that I had encountered at that young age seemed to be all about ideas, good and irenic, yet impractical ideas. I say impractical not because I was so skeptical that I didn’t believe that these could work, but because almost two millennia of history had demonstrated that Jesus’ ideas hadn’t yet worked. Even those who followed Jesus met horrible untimely deaths, only they seemed to be okay with it, and even smiled and sang while being devoured by lions (I had also seen Quo Vadis, The Robe, and Demetrius and the Gladiators). Jesus did perform some miracles and they did help people who were sick, hungry, and impoverished, but in the end Jesus was executed. And though he was resurrected and cheated death, even that miracle seemed time bound and local, as his work in this world appeared to end from that point on. The world continued to be in such rotten condition and with few exceptions even those who claimed Jesus didn’t seem to be following his teachings and ideas very closely. Apparently Christians had stopped smiling and singing after the first two centuries, because the history of Europe was replete with confessing Christians killing other Christians, and only after they tired of killing Jews and Muslims. All of this was difficult for an 11 year-old to reconcile with “the meek shall inherit the earth.”
As I reflect upon these memories I can recall a small list of questions that challenged me and were at the core of my fascination with Jesus and his effect on the world. Honesty dictates that I mention that I rarely articulated any of these questions since that isn’t what adolescent Jewish boys do. Nonetheless they represent at some level the beginning of a process of investigation that has been a compelling force my life and perhaps has parallels for some who are reading this.
First, I wondered, if Jesus was Jewish, why everybody but Jews seemed to embrace him? (Since my neighborhood was principally Italian and Jewish, and my school was 20% African-American, I rarely thought about other ethnic groups, although I realized the Chinese weren’t Christians, thank God, or where would we eat on Christmas Eve?) What was the unlikely possibility that we Jews were so smart that we were the only ones who got this right? Or worse yet could we have been the only ones who got it wrong? If Jesus’ followers were all Jewish in King of Kings and all Christians in Quo Vadis, what happened to the plot between Jerusalem and Rome, or did I miss a film in between?
Secondly, if Jesus’ kingdom was “not of this world,” then why did he say, “the meek will inherit the earth”? Why be born into this world at all? Why spend most of his time teaching social and moral constructs meant to transform the ethos of an otherwise irrelevant locale, all the while recruiting for a better place in the ethers? There appeared to be a real disconnect between God’s investment in the world he created and some other kingdom in the Jesus story, yet this better place had no concrete reality that could be described outside its relationship to this world.
Finally, how does one reconcile Jesus’ teaching, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” with the church’s history of violence? When and why did Jesus’ followers abandon martyrdom and take up power politics? And why even bother assuming hegemonic power if they were waiting for the first train out of this world?
I reference this story and some of my early thoughts to help frame, but also to advance, a discussion of salvation and its meaning. In many ways I believe that honesty and humility concerning our uncertainty are necessary components of salvation. Yeshua said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3). Yeshua, of course, encourages us to trust in him, yet in context he warns his original hearers over and over to be careful of prideful certitude that might block them from the truth he wishes to convey. Sharing my earliest thoughts on these matters isn’t merely an excessively long introduction, but a foundation for my own search regarding God’s salvific intervention into our world. I believe my concerns were and are still legitimate, so I will summarize them in three questions, which I explore in this paper.
1) What about the Jews?
2) What about the world?
3) What is expected of us?
I am going to recount other anecdotes from my own experiences, not as a means of proving a position, but as a way of recalling my own often buried concerns, within a religious system that equated curiosity with immaturity, and not having all the answers with not having faith. I want to share some of the thinking that I have done along the way, not for the sake of developing a defensible position, but to stimulate thinking, dialogue, and dare I say to challenge what has become for many of us our most tightly held convictions. In doing so I believe it will be valuable to keep in mind the proverbial wisdom, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings” (Prov 25:2).
What about the Jews?
The terms “save/salvation” and all of their derivative forms meant absolutely nothing to me growing up. They belong to the language of another religious culture, one that I was largely unaware of. Though these words appear in the Psalms, and in the prayers in the Siddur, Jews neither spoke of being saved or receiving salvation as either an individual achievement, spiritual ambition, or landmark event in one’s life. It was only later in my life that those who had inherited a particular interpretative tradition filled these hollowed out terms with meaning for me. They strung together a series of recontextualized verses from both the “Old and the New Testaments” and presented me with a highly individualistic, yet coherent, plan by which I might be saved. The effectiveness of the plan, at least as far as it concerned me, was largely dependent upon my willingness to give verbal assent to their presentation, which of course was as “biblical” as the verb “save” itself.
But what if they were wrong? Is this the only way that the terms save/salvation might be understood? If God’s salvation appeared in the Siddur so often, why then did it never enter into discussion around the synagogue or in Hebrew school when I was growing up? The answer, of course, is that it did, but it meant something drastically different than it did to my evangelical friends, and was expressed in a completely different idiom, avoiding the biblical language that would probably have sounded archaic and divorced from life’s present realities.
The references to salvation in the Tanakh and by extension in the Siddur most often were communal rather than individual, and generally referred to God’s promises to Israel. The promises of salvation spoke of covenant renewal and national restoration. Though these promises of salvation were spoken prophetically as a fait accompli, they were nonetheless contingent upon Israel’s faithfulness and obedience.
On those occasions when the Tanakh speaks of the salvation of an individual, this salvation is still every bit as physical and tactile as God’s protection of Israel. When the Psalmist, often presumed to be David, speaks of his own salvation, it is from imminent peril, which would certainly result in death, actual physical death. The Tanakh, in fact, has little to say about the fate of the disembodied spirit.
The salvation of Israel is then further illustrated through God’s active concern for the physical welfare of Israel’s paradigmatic king. The life of David and the salvation of his life and kingship are emblematic of Israel’s narrative. As with the people he would rule, David’s ongoing welfare was dependent upon God’s faithfulness and his own obedience. So though the Hebrew scripture did occasion itself to speak of the salvation of individuals, the salvation is only understood within the context of the larger communal story, the story of Israel, a story of deliverance from the present chaos within the created order, not from the created order.
Therefore the Jewish conversation concerning God’s saving hand has always been relative to his interaction with the Jewish people. On June 5, 1967, Israel launched a preemptive strike to protect itself against the aggressions of an Egyptian and Syrian-led coalition. Civilians were being shelled and Israel was outnumbered both in troops and artillery. I remember a combined high-level angst among the Jewish community within which I lived that I had never seen before. Even among the less religious Jews in my neighborhood there was a palpable concern for Israel and the current situation. At Congregation Emanuel where I attended Hebrew school there were special prayers at our daily mincha service invoking God’s promised protection of Israel. The anxiety didn’t last long, and when the Six Day War ended on June 10 the entire community seemed to exhale simultaneously. Israel’s success was directly attributable to the God of Israel and was recognized by all both in spoken and unspoken agreement; and none questioned who saved the State of Israel and the hope of the Jewish people in the Diaspora.
Most, if not all, of us would agree that God continues to be concerned with the welfare of Israel. In fact I would dare say that most of us began our search for Yeshua at this very place. When I was thirteen Rabbi Blumenthal taught the post-bar mitzvah students at my synagogue. I am sure I frustrated him with my ongoing curiosity concerning Jesus. We used a history book in class that presented Jesus as an average Jew who had no interest in starting a new religion; Paul on the other hand was presented as a religious huckster who was responsible for the unfathomable proliferation of Christianity. How did that happen? My thinking mirrored the words of Judas Iscariot in the title song to Jesus Christ Superstar: “If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation. Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.” So how does one reach most of Europe and Asia Minor with the same primitive tools? Apparently something was amiss. At one point I listened to the original cast album of Superstar almost daily. It replaced King of Kings as my new window into the Jesus world, and I empathized with the confusion and agnosticism of the main characters. Like Judas I felt conflicted and tortured; like Mary Magdalene I could say, “I don’t know how to love him.” I wanted to, but I was born on the wrong side of the great divide. I wanted to believe it was true, but it struck me as odd that God would segregate the world in such an unfair way. To believe in Jesus was a defection of the worse kind and I would be forced to agree that all Jews got this one wrong. Of course I considered along the way that most of Jesus’ early followers were Jewish, but they all became Christians, and were absorbed into the sea of goyim who would then persecute my people. Obviously no Jews today believed in Jesus. I intuitively knew that if this Jesus stuff were to make sense it would have to be pieced together differently.
The first time I ever encountered Jews who believed in Jesus was in 1974 and I was 16. I was walking in Times Square with some friends and we were trying to score fake IDs. It was impossible back then to walk down 42nd street without someone putting literature in your hand, so I wasn’t surprised when I was handed a broadside by a freaky-looking guy in jeans and a t-shirt that announced he was a Jew-for-Jesus. The tract was cheap and amateurish, just like the pamphlets advertising the strip joints, peep shows and massage parlors that were handed out up and down Times Square. I tossed the broadside without reading it, since in that environment it grabbed my adolescent interest far less than the exotic possibilities of the Oasis Health Spa. My first lesson in evangelism (though I didn’t know this was evangelism) is that fundamental truths of the universe should not be pushed or glad-handed on street corners. Also don’t compete with sin on its own terms; it rules its own turf. What is really interesting is that in the coming years, as my search for Yeshua intensified, somehow I never made any association between my quest for truth and the J-for-J worker I encountered. I suppose my concerns were too deep and complex to reconcile with such a simplistic, consumerist presentation. I didn’t reject it; I never considered it. In retrospect I realize that most Jewish people do not reject Yeshua; they never consider him. He has never been brought into a context in which they might take him, his claims, and his role in Jewish history seriously.
Ten years later, in 1986, I would place my trust in and give my life to Yeshua. But I can’t say I ever had all of my questions answered, especially regarding the Jewish people and where their incumbent loyalties should be, with their own or with Jesus. Indeed, when I came to faith in Yeshua the questions only intensified.
I suppose I came to believe because I stopped fighting and gave up. I was in New York at my mother’s synagogue for Yom Kippur. The ark was open and the hazzan was chanting the kedusha. All at once I knew that Yeshua’s claims were true and I believed. That was it, no altar call, no sinner’s prayer, no riveting questions to God in evangelical idiom, and certainly no ‘ataboys from the faithful. In fact there was nobody to tell. If the angels were rejoicing they had not let me in on it. I had not thought that day where I was going to spend eternity. That wasn’t on the table as far as I was concerned—I had already been in a living hell and instinctively knew I was being tossed a lifeline. Now I experienced real peace for the first time in a long time. In retrospect, at this seminal moment I was pulled from peril not unlike David or Jonah, and though I may have been the only person in synagogue who was aware of what was happening at that time, I felt indelibly part of Israel’s fate. After all it was the God of Israel who met my needs, as I sat crying out that day for help and deliverance with all of the other Jews in the Fleetwood Synagogue and in synagogues all over the world. I may have been the only Jew who came to a determination that Yeshua was the Messiah in that place and on that day, but God had not delivered me from Israel, rather with Israel, for Israel, and as a sign to Israel. My salvation was not an ethereal experience divorced from the pathos of this world or my people, but the beginning of a redemption from the societal ills, and a promise of a future redemption of all Israel and all of the created order (Rom 8–11).
I didn’t make a determination of faith in Yeshua due to any clever gospel presentation. I wasn’t too knowledgeable of Christian constructs and had not been impressed by most of the ones I had been shown. What moved me to consider Yeshua was his relationship to the Jewish people. There were two events that encouraged my consideration. One was reading the Late Great Planet Earth. Though I would now disagree with much of the material in the book and almost all of its approach to prophecy and eschatology, it was the first time that I had encountered a Christian author who not only acknowledged that Jesus was Jewish, but also recognized the primary place of Israel in Scripture and in God’s plans. The second was meeting Christians who not only had a positive attitude toward Jews, but also thought Jews were the chosen people of God and again acknowledged them to be pivotal to God’s plans.
As time passed, though, I came to realize that even these philo-Semitic positions were limited in scope. Of course they recognized that for the God of Israel to maintain his good reputation he would have to keep his promises to Israel. Though they acknowledged Israel’s rich past and eschatological future, they fell very short of recognizing Israel’s covenantal role and purpose in the present. If the Church was the new eschatological reality in which salvation was realized, then to be obedient to God one must “get saved” and become part of the Church. But this created a philosophical dilemma. If “all Israel was to be saved,” but all of the faithful in the interim became part of the Church, then who was going to compose the identifiable “all Israel” in the end? In this schema it appeared that Israel was no longer the displaced and irrelevant social entity that it had been in traditional Christian thinking; it had now been upgraded to a farm system for the Church.
The Christian position that we have inherited is inherently a two-covenant system; the old one with Israel that is now obsolete, and a new one with the Church that is up and in working order. I am suggesting a radically different approach, with one and only one covenant that was enacted with the patriarchs, ratified with Moses, and enlivened, renewed, and enlarged through Yeshua. Rather than a new eschatological reality that replaces Israel, the ekklesia is a new relational reality, whereby those who are in Yeshua, who is the quintessential Israel, are appended to Israel, and share in the riches of its inheritance in the age to come. This position is only radical because it encourages us to continue the process that we have already begun, and that is to completely reverse the Church’s supersession of Israel.
What about the world?
After having my epiphany of Yeshua in synagogue on Yom Kippur, I experienced a period of anxiety and fear, so much so that if I hadn’t had a genuine existential moment of peace and clarity I would have probably fallen away from my new-found belief. But I could not be talked out of my beliefs, even by myself, since I had never been talked into them, and in fact I’m not sure I fully understood what I believed, let alone how to articulate it. I just knew somehow that Yeshua was the answer—but the answer to what? The situations in the world were not getting any better and, nearly two millennia after the coming of Yeshua, peace was not in sight. Did the occupants of the planet really need to destroy it so God could start all over?
I was now encountering more evangelical Christians and several were becoming friends. I would ask my new friends, since they were so much more experienced with these matters, to explain what I should expect. Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to bring peace? If we were his posse, shouldn’t we work toward and help bring peace, feed the hungry, help house the homeless, and care for the victims of injustice? My friends explained that I need not worry about the state of the world; such concerns were for liberals who were “trying to earn their way into heaven.” We already “had our tickets out” and were “going to a party soon.” We just needed to tell others so they could pray a sinner’s prayer and go to the party as well.
This didn’t make a lot of sense to me on so many levels. First, I had never prayed a sinner’s prayer myself and didn’t even know what one was. This was easily remedied and my friends made sure I sealed the deal by holding their hands and repeating a rote prayer to acknowledge that I had received Yeshua. Now I was told I could have “peace in my heart.” I could not shake the creepy feeling I was betraying all of my values, and that all of my new friends were totally narcissistic. Was it really all right to feel okay while the world went to hell in a handbasket? Shouldn’t I shed a tear for all of the innocents who were suffering now? Did God really not care about all of the incidental loss and carnage in the interim until Yeshua returned to set things right?
Something was happening to me, though; I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude to God for delivering my soul from a prison of hopelessness and cynicism. The social conscience that I had developed as a boy was returning to me, and I felt both a desire to tell others what I had experienced and a need to help those less fortunate. My friends called this witnessing, but it always seemed as though there was a universe between my desire to tell others what God had done for me, and the mechanical presentations they wanted me to give. My concerns were all centered on this world and its deplorable condition; their concerns focused on an all-important “plan” that was supposedly God’s, but struck me as merely a poor synthesis of Bible verses. I wanted to help God save the world; they seemed content to escape it.
I quickly found that I was now living in a world where questions were not really welcomed. Seekers were encouraged to inquire, but once you entered the inner circle and asked questions that challenged the established dogma you were quickly shut down and given stock responses. If you dared to persist you might be labeled a troublemaker, or worse yet, considered on your way toward “backsliding.” Apparently caring for the hurting beyond getting them to assent to the “gospel” could call your “salvation” into question. But I still had questions as to what the “good news” actually was. I was told by some, and more than a few, that while I was a neophyte I should read the Gospel of John, because it was the clearest presentation of the Good News. Prior to becoming a Yeshua-believer I had been told by sympathetic Christians to read the Gospel of Matthew since it was the “most Jewish of the gospels.” I was encouraged by the Jewish genealogies, and comforted by the nature of the inter-Jewish conversation, even if the nature of the conversation was often alien and appeared to me at the time to have some archaic concerns. Even when the disputes recorded in Matthew turned ugly, they were still within the context of a family squabble, and calling someone a hypocrite, a fool, misguided, or even a corrupt snake (Matt 23:13–36) was no worse than some of the rhetoric I had heard at family circle meetings or on the benches outside of my apartment building growing up; Jews argued.
But the Gospel of John, which I had never read, was quite different. I was unnerved by the disparaging use of the term “Jews” as the disenfranchised and dissonant other. Each time I read this referent I internally flinched and wished to cover my face. I heard it elongated in dramatic disdain—Jeeews. It wasn’t hard to imagine the word coming out of the mouth of a hooded goon, rather than the benevolent Jewish radical that I had embraced. I found it almost impossible to continue to engage, let alone embrace, the words of the “Beloved Disciple,” and couldn’t understand how my newfound friends thought this book was “good news” or why it would soothe my concerns. Not only did it fail to answer my concerns about the state of the world, Yeshua’s tardiness, and his follower’s lack of interest in such matters, but also I now had all of my old wounds reopened. I was challenged as a caring human, and doubly challenged as a Jewish Yeshua-believer. I knew that somehow I was going to need a new reading strategy to reconcile the “Beloved Savior” with the scary gospel of the “Beloved Disciple.”
It was not until decades of consideration, a seminary education, and hundreds of books later that I have been able to come to some peace with the fourth Besorah. “Jews” (or “Judeans”) has been explained as both a sectarian and a geographical term. Its pejorative use in the fourth Besorah seems to be directed only at the corrupt and hypocritical leaders that oppose Yeshua, never toward the people of Israel as a whole. Many modern scholars would agree that reading the text outside the historical context of an intra-family feud will elicit an incorrect anti-Jewish response, and establish an ongoing contiguous association between the antagonists of Yochanan’s Besorah and the Jewish people. The fourth Besorah speaks of a first-generation audience who encountered the Messiah firsthand, and accepted or rejected Yeshua based upon his direct teachings of the kingdom and his embodiment of the divine presence, which brings life and exposes evil deeds (John 3:16–21). Yeshua never demands assent to creedal formulations; rather he invites those he has encountered to live a life faithful to his teachings of the kingdom. The irony is that all too often today it is those who claim the name of Yeshua who over-systematize belief and therefore diminish the nature and importance of the encounter with the risen Messiah. My friends were far more anxious for me to get with their program than for me to actually find out what the kingdom was. But I did not believe in Yeshua due to any clever argument, construct, or presentation; rather because I had encountered the Risen One on Yom Kippur in Fleetwood Synagogue. Denying this encounter was never a viable option.
It was the Besorah of Matthew, and especially the Sermon on the Mount, that became the text that compelled me the most. That Yeshua went through the countryside teaching and healing moved me, and the fact that he did it in the synagogues told me he was no outsider. I felt I was getting closer to finding out what the gospel was since Matthew said Yeshua was “preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matt 4:23). The kingdom was clearly not detached from the reality of a renewed world since Yeshua invested himself so deeply in the healing and restoration of all that was around him. But it was the message of the kingdom and its radicalism that grabbed me: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3).
Yes, there was a heaven to be gained, but it appeared to be coming our way. It was not divorced from this world; rather those who inherited it were those who followed Yeshua’s example of helping, healing and caring. It was the meek, the humble, and the peaceable who curried God’s favor, not the know-it-alls with an airtight plan. Though the kingdom was a sovereign work, we could partner with Yeshua and achieve an inexplicable happiness. Apparently there was work to do and more was required of us than my friends and teachers were either letting on or understood.
I began to volunteer at the soup kitchen at the Thomas Merton House in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Three or four times a week I would go down and help serve meals, organize Bible studies, and find housing for homeless men who needed rides to the shelters. Sometimes, though probably ill-advised, I would bring people home to sleep on our sofa bed. My wife was uncomfortable with this, and rightfully so, but the Good News compelled me to make a difference. Some of my friends were concerned for me, not because I would occasionally put my family and myself at risk, but because they thought I was trying to work my way to heaven. Some even told me that I was falling away because I was volunteering at a Catholic ministry. All I knew is that I owed a great debt to Yeshua and I was too glad to try and repay it.
What is expected of us?
My evangelical friends would often question my thinking. They wanted to know how much good work someone needed to do to get in heaven. I wasn’t sure. Maybe nothing. That had never been my motivation; I just knew that I was supposed to try to follow Yeshua’s example of selfless service. For me the more bothersome question, which nobody seemed to want to answer, was how much did you need to know, or what did you need to know, or whom did you need to know, to get into heaven?
There seemed to be a certain level of self-deception in my friends’ thinking. According to their model, not only was dying clearly advantageous over living, a fact that clearly did not seem to match anyone’s genuine desire, but there was privileging of certain groups or types of people who were born with an inside track to the great hereafter. Clearly those of reasonable intelligence had an advantage over those who had subpar intelligence. Since one had to agree with the gospel presentation, didn’t one have to understand the gospel presentation? This left the mentally impaired at a considerable disadvantage, along with children, especially children who were not born to evangelical Protestant families. Even the hearing and sight-impaired were at a considerable disadvantage prior to advancements in education for the disabled. Yet these are the very people whom Yeshua drew to himself. If they were around when he walked the streets would they not have received his love and embraced him fully? What of the blind man who could not state whether or not Yeshua was a sinner, but merely replied, “One thing I do know, I was blind and now I see” (John 9:25). Would Yeshua have blocked his access to eternal bliss because he could not sort out the whole sin-sinner problem? Those of great intelligence, I was told, were at considerable disadvantage since they were too proud and their minds stood in the way of their hearts. But intellectuals and those who were the most successful in society were celebrated when they came to faith, indicating that intelligence was of great value only when it was in general agreement with those interpreting the rules of access to heaven.
Having too much or too little intelligence wasn’t the only problem. Much of the rest of the world seemed to have problems with the informational flow. One was at a disadvantage if he or she had the misfortune to be born into the wrong family, tradition or geographical locale. Of course much of the developing world had not heard of Yeshua, nor had those who were from areas with dominant religious cultures other than Christianity. Even here in the United States I was all too well-aware that Jewish people could often not hear the Jesus story as good news when for two millennia it had been nothing but bad news for our people. I did not want to be so arrogant and deceived as to believe that they would be punished because of the failure of those who claimed the name of Jesus to incarnate his presence. Clearly those who grew up in Anglo-Protestant homes were operating with a clear advantage when it came to accepting this gospel plan. Apart from them, only those who were disaffected from other cultures and religions, all the while having had the good fortune to run into an articulate messenger, seemed to receive God’s gift of grace though it was supposed to be for all people (Luke 2:10). Clearly there appeared to be some disconnect between the broadly intended reception of God’s favor and the limited capacity of this delivery system.
In the circles in which I traveled (and I tried a lot of circles) salvation came down not only to what you knew and professed, but often how you professed it and, amazingly, what you thought of others’ professions of faith.
In 1992, though, I experienced a watershed moment. I was attending a Bible study led by the leader of the Messianic congregation I’d joined. We were studying the book of Luke and I had been observing week after week those within the text who followed Yeshua. They didn’t seem to sign up by virtue of their doctrinal recitation; in fact the only persons within the text who appeared at all doctrinaire were those who opposed Yeshua. So I asked our leader, “I know that we have to believe in Yeshua to be saved, but if someone believes in Yeshua, but does not believe others have to believe in Yeshua, would they be saved?” He thought about it momentarily, and said “probably not.” I am not suggesting that this one man’s thinking was universal, though I am sure there are many who would agree with him. I was merely observing the world that I was becoming entrenched in. It was a world that demanded absolute certitude, a world where God could only show mercy to those who acted, spoke, and even thought in complete conformity with a calculated set of rules. Even hoping for mercy for those who continued to think differently than us could place a person outside the pale. I knew I needed a change. I wanted to regain the peace and the assurance of God’s nearness and protection that I had experienced in the past.
A year later I was asked to perform a memorial service in West Hartford. Though I was living downstate in the New Haven area and attending seminary, I was leading a monthly messianic fellowship in West Hartford that would eventually become Congregation Shuvah Yisrael. A member of Calvary Church where we were meeting contacted me. A Jewish business acquaintance of his had just lost his mother. Apparently she had come to believe in Yeshua and had asked that a “Christian Rabbi” perform her memorial service in Connecticut after she was interred in Florida. Though I had never performed a funeral before, I agreed to do so. I met with her son and his wife and they informed me that their mother had been a tarot card reader and a psychic, was a long time member of her shul in Florida, and had within the last several years begun attending a church. If I understood them correctly, she had not dropped any of her assorted activities but had added Jesus to her spiritual potpourri. I was truly confused. Could someone be saved and be a tarot card reader? What was I to say about her spiritual destiny? Of course I would speak of her belief in Yeshua, but I didn’t know her. What assurance could I honestly offer to those who mourned? What I said was this:
It is at these times, when grief is the most poignant, that all of us are compelled to place our faith in the absolute and unfathomable justice of Providence, to place our trust in the immutable and immortal nature of the soul. It has long been the belief and hope of our people that each person is endowed with a spark of the divine being. God’s protection then, does not cease at the portal of the grave.
Immortality is the lot of all—and the Scriptures declare that reward is meted according to those who in their earthly days do justly, love mercy, and walk in humility with their Maker. Ultimately our hope rests upon the mercy of Dayan HaEmet, the true and righteous Judge.
Though I was attempting to deal with this particular occasion, these words struck me as true regarding how little we could actually know of the eternal fate of another. We may know and understand certain universal truths, but in the final analysis God is the righteous judge, and he has not asked us to help him in this vocation. Rather the life he has called us to, both individually and corporately, is one of worship and service. For each of us, eternity begins now and we are to begin to embody the life of Yeshua and of the age to come. This is a difficult vocation that will often require a great price and genuine sacrifice. Our Messiah has asked us to enter into co-crucifixion with him daily (Luke 14:27).
What I am suggesting is that we embrace humility regarding the fate of others and grasp the assurance that God is offering us in Yeshua. Genuine faith is contagious. The earliest followers of Yeshua were a unique and, as a result, somewhat marginal group. Daily they met in the temple courts and most people feared them and kept them at arm’s distance. Nonetheless we are told that their numbers grew daily, evidence that they were effectively working toward the fulfillment of Israel’s destiny despite, or better said due to their marginality. For this reason, I believe we must be willing to radically rethink our individual lifestyles and priorities, subordinating our individual desires so that we might follow Yeshua as his body. In this respect I am not suggesting a wider hope at all but one that is somewhat narrower. A narrow path for lives well-lived as compared to a wide, easy, and formulaic affirmation of insider status.
Yeshua’s willingness to abandon his kingdom (Phil 2:3–6) results in its eventual establishment on earth; that those who follow in his footsteps become heirs to this kingdom is equally good news. Yeshua promises that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the meek, the merciful, and the peaceable (Matt 5:1–10). That these will inherit the land suggests an invasion of the cosmic order into the natural world, a time when the righteous standards of God will overturn the powers and principalities that presently dominate this world. Yeshua’s humility, sacrifice, and suffering are redemptive of the cosmic order; likewise we are instructed to bring his redemptive love into the social and moral structures, forsaking power and self-protectionism. Yeshua instructs his disciples to be happy when they are insulted, while practicing radical generosity and actively pursuing peace. These are meant not merely as individual instruction, but as the representative qualities of a salvific community that bears the image of God in and through his suffering servant. May we endeavor to become that kind of community, humble and honest, embodying Yeshua’s life, his teachings, and his salvation.
Rabbi Paul L. Saal (MA, Theological Studies) is the founding spiritual leader of Congregation Shuvah Yisrael in West Hartford, Connecticut. He received smicha through the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) and the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (MJRC), which he has served as president. Rabbi Saal is the Dean of Students of the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute. He is a former editor of Kesher: A Journal of Messianic Judaism and is the author of many published theological papers and articles. He and his wife, Robbie, are the parents of four daughters and five grandchildren and have lived in West Hartford since 1994.