Symbols and Substance
In this twentieth century, a religious movement known as the Cargo Cults threatened to destroy a number of tribal peoples. These Cargo Cults were particularly destructive in Melanesia. They sprouted up when local people observed that colonial officials and missionaries received supplies dropped as cargo from the skies or brought in on the oceans. Natives regarded these gifts” from within the context of their own religious beliefs; nevertheless, they began to adopt the practices and outward behavior of the officials and missionaries with the expectation that the skies and oceans would yield cargo to them as well. They adopted a foreign culture as the means by which they expected to receive that cargo—eating their meals at tables, sitting on chairs rather than squatting—because it seemed best to imitate the behavior of those receiving the cargo. More significant, they abandoned their agrarian life-style. Gardening ceased; livestock and crops were neglected. The people devoted their time and energy to building symbolic airstrips, wharves and warehouses in order to receive and store cargo that never came. As you can imagine, the results were disastrous.
How did these people get themselves into such a predicament? Some might say it was because they were unsophisticated, primitive or naive. Those things may or may not be true, but I think the problem was that these people did not know how to do something that, up until that time, had not been necessary in their culture. These people endangered their families and their communities because they had a mistaken notion of cause and effect. They did not know how to distinguish between symbol and substance.
Failure to distinguish between symbol and substance is not especially the mark of an unsophisticated society. If it were, we would not have expressions like “clothes make the man.” Some people go into debt to own a particular car in hopes of receiving the treatment they believe would be accorded to a person who could actually afford that car. Many couples spend an incredible amount of time and money on a wedding and reception while investing comparatively little time and effort on developing skills necessary to build the actual marriage.
Failure to distinguish between symbol and substance is common. It is likely to happen when we want something and begin making moves to get what we want before we have thought deeply about it. It is when we fail to think deeply that we are the most likely to mistake symbols for substance.
By thinking deeply, I mean asking the kind of questions that will get us down to sources. We need to be analytical. When we want something, we must be careful that we truly understand what it is that we want, why we want it, whether we ought to have it, whether or not it’s actually possible to have it, and if so, we’ve got to go to the right place to get it. When we begin to think deeply about those things that we want, we are dealing with matters of substance.
As Jewish believers in Jesus, much of what we value as substantial is not apprehended with our five senses: faith, heritage and connectedness with others who share that faith and heritage. When we look for ways to express or represent matters of spiritual or cultural substance, we utilize symbols. Symbols do not bring into being what is substance. When properly used, they represent substance that already exists. The symbol does not precede the thing it represents.
As we develop our own traditions and forms of worship, we Jewish believers need to be able to distinguish symbol from substance. Unlike the tribal people of Melanesia, we are not adopting foreign culture and customs. We are looking for ways to express our own heritage. Yet if we don’t think analytically, we could be in danger of embracing symbols without any substance and have a life based on illusions. Worse yet, we could be embracing a symbol that may even express a substance inimical to our faith in Yeshua. There are substantial theological and cultural prejudices against which we need to guard our hearts.
I believe the following excerpts from letters I’ve received in the past year symbolize the dangers of these two prejudices:
One Jewish believer recently wrote to me,
When you reinterpret Jesus from the Jewish perspective, everything changes, including definitions of salvation, Messiah, God, Son of God, Word of God, Torah, etc. The result, I believe, magnifies rather than diminishes the importance of Jesus. It also renders him fully acceptable, even potentially important, to halakic Judaism.
Later in his letter he comments,
The test of a Jew, however, is not doctrine or the strength of their belief, but loyalty—to the uni-une (not triune) God, to their fellow Jews, to Judaism, to Torah and to the Covenant. It is assumed that no matter how secular a Jew becomes, or how far their doctrine strays, they will close ranks and stand with their people should the situation call for it.
The loyalty of Messianic Jews is open to question 1. because the biggest threat to Judaism, historically, has come from Christians, and 2. because most evangelized Jews end up members of Gentile churches, many of which preach that Judaism is either dead or a pointless anachronism.
My question is this: The next time Christians start killing Jews in the name of Jesus, will you stand with your people? I have no doubt that you, personally, will. Most Jews, however, have grave doubts about whether their Messianic brothers and sisters can be counted on.
This brother is juggling a number of important issues, and it seems to me that he is unintentionally reducing doctrine (which I believe is a matter of substance) to a symbol—a symbol of Jewish identity. He seems to be saying what you believe (or perhaps refuse to believe) shows your loyalty to the Jewish people. He also seems to say that loyalty is more important than belief or doctrine when it comes to Jewish identity. Identity and loyalty are good and valuable, yet it is harmful to elevate them above the substance of doctrine, which is what we believe and teach about God.
Loyalty to the God who created the Jews certainly precedes (but does not preclude) our loyalty to the Jewish people. In the letter, the issue of loyalty is initially listed in the context of loyalty to God, with the implication that belief that God is triune is a symbol of disloyalty. But the letter then moves to the theme of this and other letters, which is loyalty to people, specifically people whose acceptance most of us would value. This friend would have me believe that certain doctrines (i.e., that Jesus is the only way of salvation and that rejecting Him results in an eternity apart from God) symbolizes an attitude of disloyalty toward unbelieving Jewish people. This fellow Jew believes these doctrines sprang from anti-Jewish sentiments. He contends that if we believe these doctrines, it seems as if we are against our own people, causing them to question if we would care about their welfare in times of trouble. At least, that is how I understand his letter.
Loyalty is important, and I trust that all of us will continue to identify with our Jewish people even if that means enduring persecution, even death at the hands of anti-Semites.
I also trust that all of us will continue to identify with our Messiah, even when that means enduring persecution, and, should the day come, death. However, doctrine is a separate issue; it is not an expression of loyalty. It is to be believed or not believed solely on the criteria of whether or not it is true. Conversely, the object of genuine loyalty is a person or persons, not a belief. Belief is not always a matter of choice, but it is always a matter of commitment. When we commit ourselves to believing or not believing in order to get along with others, we are not loyal to them. It is simpler than that: we are fearful or unwilling to risk their disapproval. The disapproval is a substantial matter because it keeps us from associating with people we love. But to shift our beliefs in order to associate and gain approval is the greatest kind of DISLOYALTY to God. And the saddest part is that most people honestly believe they are above that kind of disloyalty. They have many reasons to show that they are doing the right thing rather than the convenient thing.
We need to recognize that basic beliefs about Yeshua and His nature are substance. Symbols are representational and negotiable. Substance is neither of those things. Danger number one is negotiating the non-negotiable nature of Jesus.
Danger number two can also be seen in the letter from which I quoted, but it is even better illustrated in another letter from a different Jewish believer who is the leader of a ministry. He wrote,
What we know as Christianity started from the beginning as Pauline synagogues of Gentiles worshipping the Jewish Messiah. Then this group of Gentile believers, lacking the courage to stand up for Yeshua and His religion against persecution, made up their own anti-Jewish religion called Christianity.
In another letter, he went on to say,
Most of what we see as Christianity, today and historically, is so far from the religion of Yeshua, so pagan and foreign to God’s will, so anti-biblical and anti-Jewish, that we have no choice but to view it publicly as an aberration.
This statement is astounding. Certainly, it is not representative of the majority of Jewish believers, but regrettably it is not a rare sentiment. Further, this brother is a caring, considerate and sensitive person. Yet I feel very strongly that the ideas and generalizations he expressed are, in some ways, as inflammatory and prejudicial as the anti-Semitism to which he is reacting. I fear a second danger to our movement is that in attempting to rediscover the Jewishness of our faith, some of our messianic mishpochah might be adopting cultural prejudices.
For some of our unbelieving brothers and sisters, finding fault with Gentiles is a symbol of Jewish loyalty. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” (Just as some anti-Semites consider their hatred of Jews a symbol of loyalty to their own culture or religion.) But true loyalty to one’s own is not best expressed through prejudice toward outsiders. Some symbols are poor symbols because they do not accurately represent the substance. Prejudice is one such poor symbol. It is a shortcut to expressing affiliation with one group by excluding another.
Prejudice is altogether inimical to our faith in Yeshua, who called for unity among believers. Further, anyone who dares to regard most Christians as pagans (and I hope most don’t dare) is claiming knowledge of millions of people he has never met and hundreds of thousands of churches he has never visited.
I don’t think we should tolerate a spirit of Gentile-bashing in ourselves, and I hope that we will gently but firmly let others know it is un-Yeshua-like. On the other hand, there is a great deal to be said for the desire to express our faith in Jesus within the context of our Jewish identity. For although some misguided Christians have insisted that faith in Jesus means repudiating all things Jewish, and some misguided Jews have insisted the same thing, we are guided by a very Jewish Jesus. We will not be robbed of our identity by anyone—Jews or non-Jews! As a movement of Jewish Christians, messianic Jews or any other symbol by which we care to be known, we must maintain the integrity of our faith and our heritage. We must be more concerned with substance than with symbol.
In adopting models and forms of worship to express our faith in a Jewish context, it is good to incorporate appropriate Jewish traditions. In order to know what is appropriate, we need to think deeply about what we want and ask ourselves difficult questions to make certain that the substance of what we seek is from God. If we don’t think deeply, we risk the temptation of shortcuts, i.e. inappropriate symbols. Inappropriate symbols either have no substance behind them or else they represent a substance destructive to messianic faith. Compromised doctrine and prejudices that unfairly label or shut out the Gentile members of the body of Messiah are destructive to our faith.
How should we guard against these dangers? We must do it by carefully analyzing and holding ourselves and others accountable to the substance of our faith and our Jewish identity.
One way is by institutionalizing certain symbols that represent the substance of our faith. For example, the doctrinal statement of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations includes the declaration:
We believe in the deity of the L-rd Yeshua, the Messiah, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.
Various congregations and evangelistic agencies around the world have documents that symbolize their commitment to basic doctrine regarding the nature of Yeshua. Most of these are an adaptation of the Nicene Creed.
For those unfamiliar with the Nicene Creed, it is a doctrinal statement issued by leaders at a church council held in Nicaea in AD 325. These church leaders were trying to deal with the false teaching of a man named Arias who denied the deity of Jesus, claiming that He was a created being. In order to deal with this controversy, church leaders put forth a creed that has been accepted throughout the centuries as a true, Scripture-based statement regarding the nature of the Messiah:
We believe in one God the Father All-sovereign, maker of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made…1
It is not my intention to go into a lengthy discussion on the Nicene Creed. For the purpose of this forum, it is enough to say that the deity of Yeshua is clearly taught in the New Testament Scriptures, and the leadership of the church confirmed that understanding and put to rest any questions that may have been raised by false teachers such as Arias at the Council of Nicaea.
One messianic leader recently stated that he believes Jesus is the Messiah but he has a problem with the Nicene Creed. And he is not alone in making this statement. Many Jewish believers have expressed reservations regarding this creed. What is the problem that some Jewish believers are having with the Nicene Creed?
Some Jewish believers want to reformulate statements like the Nicene Creed simply to make it more understandable and relevant to Jewish believers. Dr. John Fischer, chairman of the Theology Committee of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, explained it this way in a recent phone conversation: “We are in agreement on the data. The data will lead you to the conclusion of the Trinity. That’s not an issue. The issue is how can we communicate that sensitively, accurately and perhaps in a context that would be a little closer to the original cultural context?”
Dr. Louis Goldberg, chairman of the Jewish studies department at Moody Bible Institute, added, “Biblical content stays the same. It is the dress or how you want to talk about it that changes.”
Those who desire changes that reflect context, not content, are talking about symbols. We “contextualize” so that the language (a symbol) represents doctrines (substance) in a way that is culturally relevant to us. As we contextualize, we exercise care that the change in symbols/language does not change or misrepresent the substance/doctrines.
Yet there are others who would prefer to dispose of the creeds because they reject the content, that is, the substance of the doctrine. There is a growing minority of Jewish believers who are uncomfortable about openly declaring that Yeshua is God. More often than not, these people are coming to denial of His deity under the guise of rediscovering the Jewishness of their faith.
The first messianic leader whom I mentioned as having a problem with the Nicene Creed went on to say that he does not agree that Yeshua is co-equal with El Shaddai. Jesus, he said, is not on the same plane as the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet the Jesus he describes is not the Jesus of the New Testament. There are men and women today who claim to represent our movement, even on radio and television, who have turned to a different Jesus.
In his book, The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus, Donald A. Hagner points out what he calls “some extraordinarily important developments” with regard to Jewish reexamination of the person of Jesus.2 Likewise, Arthur W. Kac in his book, The Messiahship of Jesus, has cataloged numerous quotes from prominent Jewish personalities that speak highly of the person of Jesus.3 Many Jewish believers feel greatly encouraged by the statements of people like Albert Einstein, who declared: “I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene…No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”4
As Jewish believers we, more than any, have a stake in helping the “reclamation” process along. We would naturally desire that our people accept the Jewishness of Jesus and our own Jewishness as His followers. But in our desire to hasten this, we dare not let ourselves rejoice over statements that seem to be “pro-Yeshua” yet diminish His deity. When spokespersons in the Jewish community are sympathetic to their own idea of who Yeshua is, we might feel that represents or symbolizes approval of our faith. But what is the substance of our faith? Either Yeshua is Lord of all or not Lord at all.
The Jewish believer quoted as suggesting that Yeshua “could be fully acceptable and potentially important to halakic Judaism” wrote to me stating,
Rebbe Zalman Schacter, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, has stated that he would have no problem accepting a Nazarene Hasidic movement, provided it remained “inside the loop” of halakic Judaism and submitted to halakic authority.
This is precisely the argument that brings us back to the controversy of the first century. Yeshua was unwilling to submit to halakic authority—which is no more or less than the interpretation of certain rabbis—because He Himself is the author of life—and of the Scriptures. How could He yield His substantial authority to the ascribed (hence symbolic) authority of these rabbis? No doubt He found many of their interpretations good and correct. But because Jesus is God, it is halakah that must submit to His authority.
It is significant that well-known author Rabbi Jacob Neusner has recognized much of the substance of our faith in his recently published book, A Rabbi Talks With Jesus: An Intermillennial, Interfaith Exchange. He declares,
No one can encounter Matthew’s Jesus without concurring that before us in the evangelist’s mind is God incarnate…Several generations of Jewish apologists have fulsomely praised this “Galilean miracle worker,” placing him in the tradition of Elijah and the Hasidic rabbis of the eighteenth century and afterward. Other generations have praised Jesus as a great rabbi. These evasions of the Christian claim to truth will serve no more. Christianity does not believe in the Galilean miracle worker, nor does Christianity worship a rabbi. For my part, I will not evade. I will not concede. I will not praise with excessive, irrelevant compliments someone else’s God.…If not Messiah, God incarnate, then to what grand issue of faith does my affirmation of a rabbi’s or prophet’s teaching pertain? These concessions express a disingenuous evasion of the issue. They mask a more sincere denial.5
Neusner would undermine our faith if he could, and this book attempts to do so; nevertheless, he makes the point that the New Testament clearly shows Jesus as God Incarnate, and he demonstrates quite clearly that is what is presented.
The failure of some within the messianic community to recognize the sense of much of what Neusner is saying puts them in danger of compromising the substance of our faith. Efforts to recast Yeshua in a mold more palatable to the Jewish community may be well-intended, but if any such attempts compromise the content of our historic faith, they introduce false teaching into the body of Messiah. The effects will be just as deadly as if the intent had been evil.
No’am Hendren, one of our messianic brothers in Israel, succinctly expresses this concern.
In the praiseworthy attempts of messianic Jewish teachers to find forms of expression which will communicate to our people without culturally insensitive “noise,” there will always be the temptation to use the theological agenda and terminology of traditional Judaism: an agenda and terminology forged in the heat of controversy with the Church which will not accommodate a divine Messiah.6
Let’s not lose sight of substance in the quest for symbols, that is, more contemporary, Jewish terminology.
As for fighting the danger of anti-Gentile prejudice, it is certainly understandable that in response to anti-Semitism, a certain prejudice against non-Jews has been promoted. The term goyishe kopf is not a compliment. One of the cultural prejudices of our Jewish people is to lump all Gentiles into the same generalization. For many, Willie Mays, Billy Graham, Adolph Hitler and the Pope all fall into the same category. We cannot make that mistake in our messianic community. To do so is terribly detrimental to the messianic Jewish movement because it cuts us off from much of the rest of the body of Messiah.
We need to carefully sort out right and wrong, good and bad. If prejudice has been a part of our cultural identity, then it is one part we need to leave at Calvary. We were raised to a new-life with Yeshua. When we were reborn, we did not begin our new life as Gentiles! But neither were we reborn to relearn prejudice as a method of defense. We don’t need protective walls of prejudice when Yeshua is our Rock! And since Yeshua died for Jews and Gentiles, we need to regard both as very precious in His sight.
How can we claim our right to express our faith in Jesus within our own Jewish culture and then deny Gentiles the right to express that faith in their own culture? Commenting on this, Dr. Goldberg observes, “Anti-Gentilism is as bad as anti-Semitism. I have no problem if Gentile believers want to contextualize biblical truth.”
Moishe Rosen gave an address to a meeting of the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism titled, “My Challenge to the Churches.” He spoke of four different churches: the counterfeit church, the carnal church, the confused church and the committed church. What shall we say about the committed church, the body of Messiah that is truly seeking to please the Lord? We must be prepared to say as Moishe did in his address, “Thank you. Thank you for showing me Yeshua.”
He went on to say,
Perhaps one of the greatest stains on the honor of the messianic movement is the way we sometimes have been unjustifiably harsh in our criticism of the churches. We have said some unkind things about the church. And some of us have mislabeled non-messianic congregations as the “Gentile church,” as though Christ had two brides—the Jewish bride and the Gentile bride!7
God had to deal with our brother, the Apostle Peter, concerning his anti-Gentile attitude. Most are familiar with the vision that Peter had in Acts 10:10-15. It took Peter three visions to get the point, and the point wasn’t about eating trayf. God was preparing Peter to go to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, to proclaim the gospel to him. Perhaps some of us need to hear the voice of the Lord saying, “What God has cleansed no longer can consider unholy.” We need to embrace our brothers and sisters in the Lord who may have different cultural expressions, whose ancestors may have persecuted ours, but who now have been joined to us through the perfect bond of peace, Yeshua our Messiah.
As we desire to recover the Jewishness of our faith, we need to think deeply so that we may achieve our goal through discernment and humility, not mistaking symbol for substance. Let’s be quick to reject those theological and cultural prejudices that darken the hearts and minds of our people to the truth of the gospel. As we claim our heritage, let’s go for the substance and embrace the symbols that allow us to hold fast to what is good. Let’s do so as the righteous remnant, faithful to our heritage, faithful to our family in the body of Messiah and most of all, faithful to Messiah.
- Henry Bettenson, Editor, Documents of the Christian Church, (Oxford University Press, 1975), p.25.
- Donald A. Hagner, The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus: An Analysis & Critique of the Modern Jewish Study of Jesus, (Academie Books, Grand Rapids, 1984).
- Arthur Kac, The Messiahship of Jesus: What Jews and Jewish Christians Say, (Moody Press, Chicago, 1980).
- Saturday Evening Post, (October 26, 1929).
- Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks With Jesus: An Intermillennial, Interfaith Exchange, (Doubleday, New York, 1993), pp. 15,16.
- No’am Hendren, “Response to paper by Walter Riggans: ‘The Christological Question and Contemporary Messianic Jewish Movements’,” Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism Fourth International Conference Zeist, Holland 1991, (August 7), p. 152.
- Moishe Rosen, “My Challenge to the Churches,” Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism Fourth International Conference Zeist, Holland 1991, (August 8-9), page 218.
Executive Director, Missionary
David Brickner is executive director of Jews for Jesus. David oversees the world-wide ministry from its headquarters in San Francisco. David received his Master’s degree in Missiology with a concentration in Jewish Evangelism and Judaic Studies from the Fuller School of World Mission. He has authored several books, and has been interviewed on national television shows such as Larry King Live. David’s daughter, Ilana is a recent graduate of Biola. His son, Isaac is on the missionary staff of Jews for Jesus. Isaac and his wife, Shaina, have one daughter, Nora, which makes David part of the grandparent club, a membership he is very proud of. See more here.