Indigenous Expressions of Biblical Faith

The nation of Israel was originally established having already from the outset a primary destiny and calling to bless and be a light to the nations . This destiny and calling is evident in each of the covenants made with Israel . It is not merely a relic of our past, but a very real living part of our people’s future . Within modern Messianic Judaism, we are beginning to experience a rekindled awareness of this dimension of the restoration of Israel . Here in the Messianic Jewish community in Israel, we are increasingly sending out emissaries to the nations with the message of Yeshua . In the process, some of us are wrestling with issues of cross-cultural outreach . As I have visited hundreds of indigenous tribal groups around the world, my own views have continued to be challenged.

The God of Israel created all humankind in his own image. He separated people into different languages and dispersed them throughout the world. God gave to each people the knowledge and wisdom needed to survive in each place. His hand has always been present in each people’s history. No people are without God. They may not know him, and they may not serve him, but he is still in their midst. The most basic expressions of life and faith are God-given. They may not be used properly, or used to honor him as they were intended, but that does not mean that these expressions are inherently ungodly or unbiblical. It simply means that people have misused them. Every people and place has distinct characteristics with distinct corresponding expressions. The creator made peoples and places for his glory. The whole earth is full of his glory; he longs to be served and worshipped in and through his creation.

Separation by Language and Location

Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Gen 11:1-9)*

A few generations after Noah and the flood, humankind was still united as one people with one language. Within the context of uniformity, that one people came together to build a tower and to make a name for themselves rather than for God. They sought to secure their unity around a human-made edifice rather than around him. The Lord saw where this would lead them and intervened to prevent it. He then separated humans into different peoples with different languages and scattered them abroad across the face of the earth. Even so, this was not meant as a punishment for human failure. Similarly, following the flood, Noah and his sons were commanded to fill the earth (Gen 9:1). Likewise, this dispersion of humankind across the earth was God’s intent; part of his plan and not a punishment for sin:

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb! (Rev 7:9-10).

In Genesis, the Lord divides humanity into different peoples with different languages, and scatters them around the world. In Revelation, God eventually brings people back together united in him and worshiping him as one, yet remaining distinctly unique peoples with separate languages.

So, the Lord chose to scatter humans around the world. And, as humanity dispersed, it came to dwell in distinctly different regions of the earth. Some people came to live in places that were very hot and others in places that were very cold. Some came to live in places that were very wet and others dry. Some settled in areas of high elevation and others in areas that were at or below sea level. Some came to dwell in regions near the equator where there are twelve hours of light and twelve hours of darkness consistently year round. Others came to dwell in regions far from the equator where the seasons greatly vary, even to the extreme that alternately in the middle of winter or summer the sun does not rise or set for weeks at a time. The natural environments in these places, such as the weather and the plant and animal life, all require very different knowledge and skills of the people in order to survive there. Yet, as our Creator brought each people group to the place that he was entrusting to them as his stewards, he gave each of them the knowledge and wisdom needed to live there.

As humans came to dwell in their own places and live separately, each people group came to live out different histories. Some dwelled in the vicinity of other peoples with whom they ended up having disagreements, fought for centuries, caused much bloodshed and great suffering. Others came to live near people they always got along with and lived peaceably for centuries. Some groups had constant interaction with other groups while others lived in complete isolation and never saw anyone but their own people. Most peoples occasionally experienced natural disasters such as devastating floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and great fires; some experienced them often and others never.

Over time, each people came to remember the high points and low points in their histories. Each people remembered the best and worst times and told their children about them. They used the stories of their histories to teach basic principles of life to their children. They remembered the best and worst individuals among them, honoring some and despising others. They honored the memory of those individuals who were the ones to whom God had given the wisdom as to how to endure and abound in the places he brought them to. They honored those who led them to various successes and victories.

In the course of living in very different environments and living out very different histories, many different ways developed of celebrating the seasons of each of their lands and the uniqueness of life present in each place. They each came to mark human life-cycle events in ways that express the distinct characteristics of the heritage they had in common with their own people.

The children of Israel were also brought to a land. The Jewish people were entrusted a place on the earth that had been promised through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses, who brought the Israelites back to this land, was given understanding of life and expressions of faith to teach them. These understandings and expressions were particularly relevant to this place that came to be called after their father, Israel. The customs and traditions Moses imparted were also directly related to the collective history of the Israelite people. And, they were not only given these expressions but also commanded to uphold them.

Israel’s Feasts of Ascent and Other People’s Celebrations

Among the feasts of Israel are the three Feasts of Ascent—Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Weeks), and Sukkot (Tabernacles). These are the central feasts during which the people of Israel are commanded to ascend to the Temple in Jerusalem. Each of these feasts is integrally linked to the specific history of the people of Israel and to the agricultural cycle of the land of Israel in which they live. All three feasts are inseparable from their history and their land. The main observance of each of these three feasts for today is to remember and to teach our children. Passover is a time of remembrance of the deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Jewish people remember the Passover lamb, the blood on the doorposts and the death of the firstborn sons. They remember how they were delivered and teach their children.

Fifty days later, Shavuot commemorates God’s meeting the Israelites at Sinai. He gave them his word there and empowered them through a covenant to create a new future in relationship with him.

Sukkot commemorates the forty years of wandering in the wilderness without a land and of living in temporary dwellings. Jewish people celebrate not only that the Lord brought them into the land and enabled them to build permanent dwellings, but also that he chose a resting place for himself in this land and came to dwell among them. His tangible presence inhabited the fixed Temple that was built to replace the transient tabernacle.

The three Feasts of Ascent are also related to the agricultural cycle of the land of Israel. Passover is a spring festival that marks the beginning of the harvest cycle. The unleavened bread eaten during Passover is made of wheat from a previous harvest. Only after this is a sickle put to the first grain and the first sheaf is offered to the Lord during this feast of unleavened bread. Shavuot celebrates the completion of the first stage of the harvest. It is a feast of firstfruits during which the first loaves of bread made of grain from the new harvest are offered to the Lord. In the autumn, Sukkot celebrates the completion of the harvest of all things. It is the Feast of the Ingathering, after everything has been brought in from the fields.

As with Israel, other peoples also have feasts that are integrally linked to their specific histories and to the lands in which they live. They also remember their histories and teach their children. They mark the seasons of the year and of the harvests of the places in which they live. They should continue to do so. Those who know and serve the one God, and who follow his son, should continue to commemorate the life and land of their people. They should celebrate their successes and not forget their failings. They should remember the hand of God in their histories.

When indigenous tribal men and women in the tropical rainforests of the Amazon jungle come to faith in Yeshua, they do not suddenly lose their history. They are not suddenly transported to the Middle East to live in a new land. They remain people of the rainforest, with a way of life that is relevant to that place and to the lived-out story of their people. Should they suddenly slash and burn areas of rainforest in order to start growing grain in preparation for Israel’s cycle of the harvest? Of course not. Yet, Messianic Jews should recognize and affirm the importance of them as believers continuing to honor their land and history together with their people.

Israel’s three Feasts of Ascent look forward to a future fullness in the New Covenant that is shared by the nations. During Passover, Yeshua became our Passover Lamb. During Shavuot, the first emissaries were empowered by the Holy Spirit of God to go out into the fields of harvest of the world. Sukkot speaks of a time (in the future) of the completion of the harvest—of the ingathering of the nations.

There is no place in Scripture where the nations are commanded to celebrate the feasts of Israel. There is one passage in the book of the prophet Zechariah (14:16-19) that speaks of a time in the last days when all nations of the earth are to be represented each year in Jerusalem during the time of Sukkot. Even this passage does not say that the nations at that time are to observe Sukkot, only that each nation is to be represented. Some interpret the passage to mean that the representation of all nations in that day in Jerusalem expresses the fullness of the ingathering of the nations.

New believers are adopted and “grafted” into the family of faith that was established through Abraham. Every believer inherits a rich spiritual heritage through being adopted into this commonwealth. This heritage includes the message of God’s word as first given to humankind through Israel. It also includes receiving many of the principles of redemption as exemplified and foreshadowed in the feasts of Israel.

Those in the nations who wish to share in the celebrations of Israel’s feasts and traditions are welcome to do so, but this is not a requirement. They have the freedom to do so, but Paul the emissary to the Gentiles clearly taught against any obligation for them to do these things. He not only releases the nations from any obligation, but also cautions them against embracing these things of Israel. There is certainly much that can be learned from experiencing these celebrations. But, if those from another nation should choose to do this regularly, they should be careful not to allow these expressions and traditions to replace the expressions of life of their own people. Each nation should still honor its own cultural heritage.

Diversity of Expressions of Life

Culture is the language each person speaks. It is music and dance; it is the clothing worn and the food eaten. Culture is the history that each person has in common with his or her people. It is celebrations of the year, the seasons, and of nature. It is the sharing of life-cycle events with family and loved-ones. It is the land that a people steward together. These are the common points of reference through which a people communicate with one another. All of these things make up a culture. They are the frameworks within which members of a tribe or nation share their lives.

All humankind is created in the image of God. There is something of the Creator imprinted on the spirit, soul, and body of every human being. As humanity longs for its creator, there is something of the way in which that is expressed that inherently comes from him. There is a yearning within each person that reaches back to the source.

All peoples descend from Noah. After the Flood, his children repopulated the earth. Every race shares this same forefather who knew and served the one God and creator. As the various cultures of the world have developed, they have stemmed out of that common origin. Most cultures have a traditional belief in a creator of the world and many have a story of a great flood. As colorful and diverse as all cultures are, there are still common threads that express a shared beginning and ultimately a shared future.

All cultures have strengths and weaknesses. All cultures are also tainted by sin. For example, even many of the cultural expressions mandated to Israel in Scripture have been stained over time by pride and presumption. Yet, when discovering imperfections in our cultures, the response should not be to reject everything but to seek to cleanse and redeem what has been defiled; to restore to proper use those things that have been misused, rather than throw them away. People should also seek to discover those unique redemptive strengths within their particular culture that they may have neglected.

Most, if not all, cultures have musical instruments. They are used in singing stories of life and songs of love, for worship, and religious ceremonies. When an instrument is crafted that is going to be used in a ceremony, it is common for the craftsperson to dedicate the instrument in some way either to the spirits (including idols, ancestors, and multiple gods) or to his or her understanding of the creator. When someone from this background comes to faith in Yeshua, they should continue to make music with the instruments of their people. They should craft a new drum or flute (or whatever it is they play), and dedicate it to the Lord. In so doing, they may continue to call him the creator, but it is with a new understanding of who the creator is:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. (Rom 1:18-25)

There are many believers among tribal groups who hand-make new instruments, or the traditional garments of their people, and dedicate them to Yeshua. Traditional objects that were originally crafted to bring honor to an ancestor, a spirit, or an idol are now crafted to bring honor to the God of Israel. Something that may have once been used to deify creation rather than the creator is now restored to its proper use. When someone plays one of these instruments to the Lord, the Lord looks at the heart of the musician and not the object of the instrument. Although a particular kind of drum may have been used for the wrong purpose or misdirected in its use, it does not necessarily follow that it is inherently ungodly or unbiblical. It means that it has been misused. Believers should seek to see it restored to a proper, godly, and “biblical” use—one that is not contrary to Scripture.

When new followers of Yeshua are taught to reject the cultural heritage of their people, something very precious is stolen from them. In rejecting those expressions of shared life, they marginalize themselves within their own communities and become less relevant to those around them. They lose some of the most basic tools of communication through which their people express love, honor and respect to one another. They make themselves unable to effectively communicate both their own love and God’s love to their family and loved ones. Culture is such an integral part of a people that rejecting a culture is (to a degree) in fact a rejection of that people.

When Jewish men and women embrace the New Covenant in Yeshua, they do not cease to be Jewish. They also do not suddenly become half Jewish and half Messianic, but remain 100 percent Jewish and should now also become 100 percent Messianic.When a Maori man or woman in Aotearoa (New Zealand) is reborn in Messiah Yeshua, they do not cease to be Maori. They do not become 50 percent Maori and 50 percent Christian. They remain 100 percent Maori and should now also simultaneously become 100 percent followers of the Messiah. There is no contradiction. A Mohawk friend once told me how he was confronted by someone who was upset by his use of Mohawk culture as a Christian. He was challenged, “How can being Mohawk make you a better Christian?”

He replied that the issue was better expressed, “How can Jesus make me a better Mohawk?”

The Council Of Jerusalem

In the book of Acts there is a dispute that arose among the first emissaries. They had begun to hear of Gentiles embracing biblical faith and following Yeshua without undergoing circumcision. The reports claimed that these new believers had been immersed in water and even filled with the Holy Spirit. The leaders in Jerusalem could not imagine it. What? Uncircumcised Gentiles following Yeshua and filled with the Holy Spirit? How could it be? So, the question arose, “Is it possible for a Gentile to be saved without first becoming a Jew?”

Acts 15 tells us of the gathering that convened in Jerusalem in order for the emissaries to discuss the matter. As they spoke, prayed and sought the Lord together, they agreed that it was not necessary for Gentiles to become Jewish in order to be reconciled to God. They began to see that the message of redemption was for all humankind. And, Paul confirms in his writings that it is in fact preferable that Gentiles remain as they were called and not attempt to become Jews. The spreading of the good news among the nations quickly accelerated. Within two generations, the majority of believers in Yeshua were non-Jews. A generation or two after that, the majority of believing leaders in the world were non-Jews. As the believing community grew among the Gentiles, its expressions of faith became less Jewish, such as the emissaries in Acts 15 had come to understand.

Over time, not only did faith expressions become less Jewish, but also many Gentile leaders began to assert their independence from the Jewish origins of the faith and to teach that they had replaced Israel. During the first three hundred years of church history, there were dozens of councils and synods. These were gatherings of leaders convened for the purpose of discussing, deciding and decreeing doctrine and practice. Some of these gatherings were only regional. Other councils included the participation of credible authoritative leaders from multiple regions and multiple Christian movements. It wasn’t until 325 C.E. that the first council was convened that included credible authoritative leaders from every organized church movement and region, involving the participation of 318 bishops.

The Council of Nicea convened by the Emperor Constantine in 325 C.E. became the first of what were later known as the seven ecumenical councils. Spanning a period of 462 years, both the first and seventh councils were convened at Nicea. The decisions made, the canon law decreed, and the teachings that developed out of these seven councils became the foundation of church doctrine that nearly every Christian movement has built upon ever since. Even Protestant churches today still base much of their theology and practice on these councils.

At the conclusion of the first Council of Nicea, Constantine wrote a letter of introduction to accompany the copied lists of canon that were to be distributed by the departing leaders. In this letter, Constantine declared that the church needed to separate from all dealings and associations with the Jewish people. He then proposed that the celebration of the resurrection of Yeshua should be completely and universally separated from Passover.

We ought not, therefore, to have anything in common with the Jews, for the Savior has shown us another way…we desire, dearest brethren, to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews…How, then, could we follow these Jews, who are most certainly blinded by error?…But even if this were not so, it would still be your duty not to tarnish your soul by communications with such wicked people [the Jews]…it is our duty not to have anything in common with the murderers of our Lord…and that we should have nothing in common with the Jews…By the unanimous judgment of all, it has been decided that the most holy festival of Easter should be everywhere celebrated on one and the same day, and it is not seemly that in so holy a thing there should be any division. As this is the state of the case, accept joyfully the divine favor, and this truly divine command; for all which takes place in assemblies of the bishops ought to be regarded as proceeding from the will of God…the divine power has made use of our instrumentality for destroying the evil designs of the devil….**

These kinds of statements against the Jewish people had been made before at previous councils. But, it was with the conclusion of this first ecumenical council that these decrees finally began holding authority over the entire organized church.

New Expressions of the Faith

The annual remembrance of the resurrection of Yeshua became linked with a spring festival that already existed in Asia Minor. It was a feast that included blood sacrifice to the fertility goddess Ishtar, from which comes the name Easter. This was a feast of fertility that celebrated the new life of springtime. It included the use of symbols representing new life, such as eggs, chicks and rabbits. As this feast began to be celebrated by Christians as a remembrance of Yeshua’s resurrection, blood sacrifice was done away with and the symbols of new life came to represent new life in the Messiah.

It was not wrong for the non-Jewish Christians of Asia Minor and southeastern Europe to redeem their own existing feast as a celebration of Yeshua’s resurrection. The sin of Constantine was his intention of breaking relationship with the Jewish people. When believing Christians in Europe today celebrate Easter they are not worshipping idols but are celebrating the resurrection of the Son of God. It is good, beautiful, and holy—a redeemed expression of biblical faith.

At the point of this official breaking of relationship with the Jewish people, the question facing church leaders concerning Jews became: “Is it possible for a Jew to be saved without first becoming a Gentile?” Throughout most of church history, the response to that question has been that it is not possible for a Jewish person to be in relationship with God without first forsaking their Jewish heritage and community and embracing these new expressions in the church.

The problem here is not the church’s new expressions of faith but the rejection of Jewish expressions for Jewish believers and the cursing of the Jewish people.

As Christianity spread into northern Europe, it arrived in a region with long dark winters and long sunny summers. The two main festivals of the year were mid-summer and mid-winter. Throughout Scandinavia, the mid-winter festival was named after the Viking god Jul (Yule). It was a feast that included blood sacrifice to Jul. Immediately following the shortest day of the year, the people would cut down an evergreen tree and bring it into their home to celebrate the passing of the darkest day of winter and the return of the sun—birth of the sun—and all of the greenery that comes with it. They would sacrifice a pig on the altar to Jul and ate the meat of the sacrifice in their home. As with Easter, this feast was given new meaning. It was transformed into a celebration of the birth of Yeshua. Here again, when believing Christians in Europe today celebrate Christmas they are not worshipping idols but are commemorating the birth of Yeshua. It is a beautiful redeemed expression of biblical faith.

I was once invited by a Christian pastor to go fishing on a Jewish holiday. I declined and said that it was one of my holidays. He laughed and suggested I make an exception. I told him that the holiday was important to me, and that I didn’t want to miss it. He then began to prod me and say that if I could not make an exception in order to go fishing that I was really hung-up on legalism.

I responded by asking if he celebrates Christmas.

He said, “Of course, I do.”

I then asked if he had ever made an exception and skipped it.

He looked puzzled and said, “No.”

I said that it sounded like bondage. Even more puzzled, he just looked at me. But I knew that it wasn’t really bondage.

I summarized his observance as follows: “It’s a time of year when your family gets together and you give each other gifts. You express your love and God’s love to your friends and relatives. All other things are put aside and you just enjoy being together. You laugh, joke, tell stories, sing songs and hear the latest about each other’s lives. You share in the event and in all of the special things that are part of that celebration. And, you probably take time together to give thanks to God.”

Then I said, “Well, my holidays are the same for me. They are not a burden, but a blessing. I keep them because they are meaningful and I enjoy them and not because I am forced to do so.”

As the good news of Yeshua spread to Europe it entered the cultures of the people of Europe. They were not given a “potted plant” of faith, rather, the seed of the message was planted among them in the “soil” of their own unique cultures. New life was born among them and took root in new soil and flourished.

The Europeans soon began taking that message to Africa and Asia, but in so doing failed to follow the example of the first emissaries. They took their own cultures with them and imposed them on those to whom they were sent. They declared, “Your cultures are pagan. You need God’s culture. You need our culture.” They then proceeded to teach the practices of their own culture. This included some of the redeemed expressions of European culture—redeemed and yet still foreign and irrelevant. These foreign practices also often included less-than-redeemed expressions of European culture. One problem was that cultural expressions became confused with the Gospel itself. Those to whom the good news was being presented were too often so blinded by the cultural baggage within which the message was packaged that they were unable to discern the message. Of course, another major problem was the cruel manner that Europeans often treated those whom they sought to bring the “good news.” Their sinful actions against the hearers spoke more loudly than their words.

Honoring Diversity

I heard of a Bible translator working in Southeast Asia. He was translating the New Testament into the language of a tribal group that lived in a delta region. Each year during the rainy season, the waters of the river would rise and the whole area would flood. The people of this tribe built their houses on stilts so that when it flooded the water would simply pass under them. As the translator came to Matt 7, he faced a difficult question. At the end of the chapter it speaks of a wise man that built his house on rock and a foolish man who built his house on sand. The problem was that in this culture if you build your house on a rock, the floodwaters would wash away the house. A wise man in this tribe builds his house on sand because he can sink the poles down deep into it and make his house secure. The translator wasn’t sure how to translate it. He could say, “A wise man built his house on the sand,” and “a foolish man built his house on a rock.” Well, that’s not faithful to the text. So, he thought some more and found the solution. He translated it as, “A wise man built his house on a good foundation…” and, “A foolish man built his house on a bad foundation.” This was faithful to the text and it also allowed the people to interpret it for themselves. The translator had found a way to transmit the truth of the text in a way that was relevant to how they live.

Many missionaries would have been dogmatic in their insistence about the wise man having to build on a rock. They would have said, “My Bible says…” and “My God is the same yesterday, today and forever.” And, “My God is not a liar.” Unlike the above Bible translator, they would have failed to communicate the truth of the passage to this particular people. There is great value in honoring the traditions of one’s ancestors. One should uphold them as long as those traditions do not contradict the principles of Scripture. They may be extra-biblical as long as they are not contrary to its principles. The practices may be different but they may uphold the same principles.

Chapter 35 of the book of Jeremiah gives a powerful example of a family who upheld the commandment of their father, even in the face of being ordered to do otherwise by the prophet while on the grounds of the Temple. Neither the man nor the place intimidated them. The Lord then spoke to them through Jeremiah:

And Jeremiah said to the house of the Rechabites, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Because you have obeyed the commandment of Jonadab your father, and kept all his precepts and done according to all that he commanded you, therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not lack a man to stand before Me forever.” ’ ” (Jer 35:18b-19)

The things Jonadab had commanded his sons and descendants to do were extra-biblical. Yet, the Lord greatly honored those descendants for upholding the commandments of their father.

Believers should ask themselves whether they honor the traditions of our ancestors? Or, respect other peoples’ traditions as passed down to them by their predecessors? In bringing the message of redemption to others, have believers taught them to honor their forefathers and foremothers? Or, have they taught them to dishonor them?

Embodying the Redemption of Our People and Land

Creation is in a state of brokenness. Humankind has broken relationship with its creator and has defiled the land it was given to steward. The plan of redemption is for our creator to restore creation to himself. The creator communicated that plan to Israel through the cultural heritage that he gave to us. Yeshua lived among the Jewish people, within that heritage and fully embodied the message. Yeshua honored the land in which he was born, and he honored the people among whom he lived. The message “became flesh and dwelt among us as one of us.” As the first called-out nation of messengers, Israel was set apart for a purpose that is not yet complete. It remains her destiny. She is still called out to carry that message of redemption.

By faithfully upholding the Jewish cultural heritage as Messianic Jews, they are linked to their original and ultimate national purpose and calling. Failing to keep it does not separate Messianic Jews from God, but it does put them outside their community that has faithfully served the purpose of preserving them as a people. Examples of traditions that have served to preserve Jews as a distinct people during centuries of exile are the Sabbath and Kosher laws. These two traditions have helped to preserve the Jewish people. They distinguish the Jews from the people among whom Jews lived during the Exile. The Lord used these things to preserve the Jewish people for his purposes.

There are a number of well-established Jewish communities in the Southern Hemisphere. Below the equator the seasons of the year are the inverse of when they take place in the Northern Hemisphere. During springtime in the Northern Hemisphere it is autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. So, as the Jewish communities in the south celebrate the Feasts of Israel according to the Hebrew calendar and the seasons of Israel, they are actually marking them in the opposite seasons of when they are observed in Israel. Jews in New Zealand celebrate the spring festival of Passover during the harvest season of the land of their exile. They celebrate the harvest festival of Sukkot in the springtime of the land of their exile. In so doing, they express their connection to both their history and their future in the land of Israel. They honor their ancestors. They identify with their communal Jewish history and also a destiny. They express that they are not of the land in which they presently dwell.

To teach Maori people that they must also now keep the Feasts of Israel would serve to dishonor their predecessors and their land. It would clash with who they are and where they live. It makes sense for the Jewish community in exile there to uphold their traditions as a connection to their past and future. But, it would be out of place to impose that on the other communities of New Zealand. If others wish to participate in marking those times, they are welcome. They are free to choose to share in these traditions as a means of identifying with the Jewish people, or simply as a learning experience. But, it would be out of place for them to simply appropriate these expressions as their own. They would do better to hold to the expressions of their own land and history—to honor their land and their own ancestors.

In Romans 11, Paul uses compares Gentile followers of Yeshua to branches cut from a wild olive tree and grafted into a cultivated olive tree. When branches from multiple olive trees are cut and grafted into one new tree, they each continue to produce the same variety of olives as the tree they came from, with their own unique color and flavor. The difference is that those branches now begin to receive their life-giving sustenance from a new root. If that root is stronger, the branches will be able to produce fruit to their full potential. It will still be the same unique fruit, but it will be of a higher quality and quantity.

The root of the cultivated olive tree of Rom 11 is not the Jewish community, but Yeshua himself. He is our root through whom we receive our life-giving sustenance. Those believers in the nations who are “grafted in” now receive their life-giving sustenance through Yeshua. This olive tree is not a tree with only one kind of olive, but is a tree of grafted-in branches from many trees. It is a tree of many varieties of olives with different colors, flavors, textures, and scents. Some are better for making oil and others for pickling; they are all prepared and served differently. By receiving our life-giving sustenance through a better root, all can reach their full potential. Each one’s respective fruit is still unique, but the yield is now much greater and of a higher quality.

The worldwide body of Messiah should be a symphony of colors, flavors and sounds; one in the Lord, but still diverse. Unity is not uniformity. The body should celebrate the diversity of peoples as each person seeks to be conformed to the image of God’s Son who was the message lived out. May each person live out the message in the midst of the people among whom he or she lives as fully engaged members of each community. May believers seek to see the message lived out among other peoples in ways that speak to who they are and where they live.


* All biblical references are from the New King James Version

** Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. XIV – The Seven Ecumenical Councils.

Gavriel Gefen is the founding director of Keren HaShlichut, an Israeli association of Messianic Jewish emissaries and has worked as an emissary in more than 50 countries. His organization’s Web site can be found at: