Identification With Messiah – Part 1: Invitation to Imitation

Delivered to the 2013 New England Messianic Conference

We live in an age when far too many people have experienced either a bent and sugary love devoid of boundaries, or a stern and legalistic law divorced from grace. Too often these extremes are practiced by those who most vigorously proclaim their exclusive possession of “The Truth.” Not only is the world largely unimpressed with our faulty display of God’s nature, but our pews are increasingly abandoned by disillusioned and disappointed seekers and hearers. I can’t imagine a time when it is more important for these indivisible aspects of God’s character to be experienced together.

Undoubtedly the recovery of the Jewish Roots of the Christian faith has been a move of the Spirit for our era, but like most times when the Spirit blows, there are many divisive, confusing and competing spirits striving to distract, discourage, and destroy the legitimate work of God. In times like these a sure and steady course can be set by relying upon the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit to bring to our aid the tri-fold tools of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition (properly used in that order of priority).

I think Paul of Tarsus, John the Beloved, Polycarp of Smyrna, Irenaeus of Lyon, and American Dispensationalist Charles Ryrie are examples we might look to for imitable patterns of the exercise of God’s love and law.

In these pages I hope to outline three points upon which I believe the Church must agree in order to be effective in honoring God, and creating disciples of Messiah. Though I don’t believe a robust unity requires absolute uniformity, it seems there must be some sort of foundation upon which to base our common labors. I believe we need, 1) an unchanging standard, 2) a primary identity, and 3) a corporate mission.

I shall take the late Bishop J.C. Ryle as my model in this endeavor, who, noticing the deplorable lack of sanctification that characterized the late 19th century English Church, worked to “[restore] biblical breadth and depth to evangelical minds that had been swept away by fashionable holiness teaching that was actually extreme, shallow, biblically incorrect, and a hindrance to growth in grace. Ryle’s response was not to cross swords with its exponents, but to lay out afresh, biblically, systematically, and in practical terms, the true fundamentals of Christian sanctity, with constant appeal to…others…who had trodden this path before him.”[1]

I will assume that this audience exists precisely because we have recognized the necessity of an unchanging standard. Therefore, I will first attempt to establish a primary identity to which we can all subscribe and which, I believe, must be in place before subsequent conversations can take place in a constructive manner. Pertaining to a corporate mission, I hope to evidence that the Great Commission is phase two of God’s original purpose: an expansion of God’s phase one mission for Israel.

If you will allow, despite our agreement on the necessity of an unchanging standard, perhaps a slight excursus on the topic would be appropriate. We need to be careful that our language does not leave people puzzled. In my experience, 80% of Americans to whom I say “law” actually hear “legalism.”  This is a problem. Regardless of what I mean, regardless of how diligently we have labored to point out that law and grace are allies not opponents, if our audience hears “bears” when we say “pears,” we are left anticipating and they are left distressed!

Now you and I realize when we speak of the law as God’s unchanging standard that love is intrinsic to God’s law. But it may be wise on our part to speak of God’s character as the unchanging standard.

God is completely loving and entirely lawful. He cannot be otherwise, for His personality is the definition of both love and law. If we embrace God’s love without embracing his law, we end up redefining love in our image rather than in his and are therefore robbed of true love. If we embrace God’s law without embracing his love, we pervert his law into something burdensome instead of life-giving, and are robbed of the full experience of His character.

God’s character, as expressed in love and described by law, outlines the only form of conduct that fully satisfies human nature. So we, being made as we are, in His image, only find fulfillment in the full embrace of the twin legs of God’s indivisible character: His law and His love. This is what we were both made and redeemed for.[2]

Love and law are not opponents but allies, forming together the axis of true morality. Law needs love as its drive, else we get the Pharisaism that puts principles before people and says one can be perfectly good without actually loving one’s neighbor. … And love needs law as its eyes, for love … is blind. To want to love someone Christianly does not of itself tell you how to do it. Only as we observe the limits set by God’s law can we really do people good.[3]

If love emphasizes people and law emphasizes principles, without the dynamic interplay of both aspects of God’s character, we get an unhealthy (i.e., sinful) imbalance. Therefore, if it is lawful, “so far as it depends on you,” to “live peaceably with all,” then it seems it would be loving to use language that puts, “no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry.”[4]

So I suggest that we might helpfully speak about the unchanging standard as being God’s character, which is equal parts loving and lawful.

God’s love gave us the law just as his love gave us the gospel, and as there is no spiritual life for us save through the gospel, which points us to Jesus Christ the Savior, so there is no spiritual health for us save as we seek in Christ’s strength to keep the law, and practice the love of God and neighbor for which it calls.[5]

So where shall we begin? Let’s start by noting the environment in which we find ourselves.

The Western Church is Severely Compromised

All men of the modern world exist in a continual and flagrant antagonism between their consciences and their way of life.”[6]

It may come as no surprise to you were I to declare that there are significant forces arrayed against the Church in North America. And, indeed, that the integrity of the Church in the western hemisphere has been severely damaged. We are vulnerable to both internal and external forces. The evangelical church is hemorrhaging 2.6 million people per decade. We’re not winning converts fast enough to keep pace with the population growth, and earnest evangelicals are increasingly defined by what they are against. Conversely, many of the so-called “neo-evangelicals” are rapidly compromising


  • Our movement is hemorrhaging 2.6 million people per decade.
  • We’re not winning converts fast enough to keep pace with the population growth
  • Earnest evangelicals are increasingly defined by what they are against, conversely, many, the so-called “neo-evangelicals”, are increasingly compromising on issues like the atonement, the inerrancy of Scripture, and sexual morality. This is the same old fundamentalist/liberal divide.


  • The external climate is turning rapidly and vigorously against evangelicals. The fastest growing subcultures in the US express a militant antagonism against Christians who take the Bible seriously (law enforcement example, Exodus International).
  • The remaining smaller, shrinking, strapped church is splintering and splitting itself over politics, theology, strategy, daily practice, and postmodern views.[7]

Journalist turned pastor, John S. Dickerson writes, “The decline of evangelical Christianity is not just that we’re failing at evangelism or just that we’re failing to keep our own kids or just that we’ll lose 70 percent of our funding in the next thirty years. It’s all those factors (and more) combined and gaining speed simultaneously.”[8]

“It is clear that the church faces many threats to its faithfulness,” writes Professor Jonathan Wilson. “Words are important here. The gospel is never threatened by changing circumstances; God’s purpose in Jesus Christ is being accomplished and nothing can hinder that. All authority has been given to Jesus Christ. However, what may be compromised is the church’s faithfulness to the gospel.”[9]

It is tempting for folks like you and I, people who have been engaged in extended efforts to intentionally transform our lives by the renewing of our minds according to God’s word, to imagine that we have somehow escaped from the clutches of the world and are now among those who see straight. But I believe this is a very dangerous notion to entertain. I know I have been surprised again in the last twelve months as God brought to my eyes after ten years of fervent, intentional labors to disentangle from the ways and the thinking of the world, just how compromised our family remains.  I am increasingly convinced that the real power of being convicted of the ongoing necessity of God’s law as a normative part of the sanctification of the redeemed is that this great, eternal standard of God’s character keeps any of us who are honest and earnest on our knees, overwhelmed by the impossibility of keeping His precepts perfectly, and undone again in how completely dependent we are upon the crashing waves of His grace, suffusing, indeed enabling, our continued existence.

Radical Action May be Required

Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations.”

Proverbs 27:23-24 (NIV84)

We have great examples to draw from in both ancient and recent history.  We can draw both practices to imitate and patterns to avoid from these examples. The fundamentalist/liberal controversy of the 1950s is a recent example we ought to examine. There is much to be appreciated as well as many mistakes to be grappled with in this history, and I would contend that our closest cousins were the evangelicals who chose an intentional path right between Fundamentalism and Liberalism. Men like Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, and Vernon Grounds. Men who have been followed by the likes of Walter Kaiser, Jr., Dwight Pryor, and Robert Webber.

These men and so many others gave us an example of prizing the inerrant truth of scripture, but of staying in relationship with one’s brethren in Messiah. Ultimately, the results of their efforts are waning. It seems that all powerful movements of God, no matter how necessary at the time of origin, no matter how fervent in their reforming zeal, always sputter and eventually distort into something that would have turned the stomach of their founder. One wonders what Cotton Mather would think of Harvard now? One imagines the heights of eloquent exhortation John Wesley might climb to, were he present at a Methodist General Conference today.

The great Thomas Cranmer recanted the very beliefs he held most dear after years of alternating imprisonment and flattery at the hands of Bloody Queen Mary’s henchman. Having publicly declared the documents he had previously signed to be false, and chained now to a stake, Cranmer stretched out his right hand, and held it unshrinking in the fire until it was burnt to a cinder, even before his body was injured, frequently exclaiming, “This unworthy right hand.” What might this mighty martyr think were he to stumble into the General Convention of today’s Episcopal Church?

Unity Without Uniformity

Indeed it seems that God must intentionally use errant movements in His grand scheme. One thinks of how dispensationalism corrected the 19th century church’s ambivalence toward Israel after the flesh. I think, however, that God calls us to learn from history, and in evaluating the efforts of our evangelical forebears, I suspect we can identify a few key missing components of their efforts. As their descendants, it would behoove us to see if we can preserve something of the legacy they left us, while still improving upon what we’ve been given.

And, indeed, they did leave us a legacy. A couple years ago I wrote an article titled “Considering Dispensationalism”[10] in which I attempted to outline the tenets of dispensationalism and why I had moved from there to a place in the greater Reformed stream. As part of that process I re-read Charles Ryrie’s classic book Dispensationalism Today. In the closing chapters of the updated edition, now titled simply Dispensationalism, Ryrie writes:

It may help to be reminded of some of the important doctrines to which dispensationalists subscribe wholeheartedly. After all, dispensationalists are conservatives and affirm complete allegiance to the doctrines of verbal, plenary inspiration, the virgin birth and deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, eternal salvation by grace through faith, the importance of godly living and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the future coming of Christ, and the eternal damnation of the lost…. As already noted, some doctrines are more important than others, so it particularly behooves us not to cut off our fellowship from those who share similar views about these important doctrines. There are few enough these days who believe in the fundamentals of the faith, and to ignore those who have declared themselves on the side of the truth of God is unwise. Something is wrong with our circles of fellowship, sense of priority, or doctrine of unity when conservatives view fellow conservatives as the opposition party and then find their theological friends among those who are teaching and promoting error.[11]

I remember sitting next to Charles Ryrie at the dinner table while he was a visiting professor at Word of Life Bible Institute. He was there teaching a class on 1 and 2 Corinthians, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

It was his humility that really struck me. I suppose this was partially due to the visiting professor Ryrie was being contrasted with, a KJV-only guy who had memorized the New Testament but left a really bad impression with me. Now you have to understand, this was “Charles Ryrie.” My Opa (my grandfather on my mother’s side) gave me a copy of Ryrie’s Balancing the Christian Life before I went off to Bible School, telling me that it had been the most influential book in his Christian life. I grew up with the Ryrie Study Bible, my grandfather on my Dad’s side also spoke regularly about Ryrie’s views on this and on that. So, when Ryrie himself came to the verses on divorce in 1 Corinthians 7—paused, and told us that he would be happy to share his view on this passage, but that other believers whom he respected disagreed over this passage and that we would be held accountable by the Holy Spirit to determine for ourselves what we believed God was saying in these verses—I was captured by his humility.

I started this anecdote at the dinner table, and you may be wondering why…never fear, we are returning. You see Dr. Ryrie’s humility was maintained in the face of ridiculous scenarios like the one I witnessed in 1993. I was fortunate to be the RA on duty at the head table that evening, so myself and seven or eight other students sat around soaking up everything the great Charles Ryrie had to say, some were even taking notes. Dr. Ryrie asked if someone would pass the salt, and one fellow looked up from his notebook long enough to say,

“Oh that’s great! Yes, we’re supposed to be the salt of the earth!”

You could hear several other affirming murmurs around the table. Dr. Ryrie, glanced at the young man, and replied,

“No, no, I mean would you please pass the salt.” and made no more fuss about it.

So later that year, when I began to question the Dispensationalism upon which I had been practically breast-fed, I was forced to wrestle with the fact that while I no longer agreed with Dr. Ryrie’s interpretation of Scripture, a young man would not go wrong in patterning their life after what I knew of his character. In the formation of my faith, this was a sign-post along the way.

This was a wonderful dilemma to face. I thought of it again when, upon reading Book V, Chapter 24 of Eusebeius’ Ecclesiastical History for the umpteenth time (3 years or so after the first time I read through that primary account of the Quartodeciman Controversy), I finally noticed a phrase that struck me for the first time. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna had traveled to Italy to meet with Anicetus, the bishop of Rome, and while neither man was able to convince the other of the necessity of their viewpoint, Eusebius records  that they “parted in peace” after Anicetus honored Polycarp by asking him to preside at the communion table. I was thunderstruck; prior to that moment I had been thinking of Anicetus as the “bad guy” who first instilled paganism into the Church’s celebration of the Passover.

Awakening to the Hebraic Roots of the Christian Faith is an incredibly invigorating experience. For myself, a faith that had basically gone into pause mode as I waited for the Lord to make Himself known was revived and impassioned. For the first time in over ten years the Bible suddenly made sense and the desire to consume the Scriptures came roaring back to life.

However, it can also open a significant “can of worms.” Suddenly one becomes aware of truths that seem to have been suppressed by the very Church who nurtured you. Relationships with parents and friends can become strained as with the fervor and excitement of the recently enlightened, you seek to convey the “new” truths the Lord has revealed to you.

Similarly, an entirely new set of questions springs up to plague you. If the Torah is good, and for our benefit, what does that mean for our day-to-day lives? Should we still go to church on Sunday or is that evil? What about communion? Is that a Roman Catholic, pagan, mystical innovation, meant to displace the Passover? Oh my goodness, what about Easter, the pinnacle celebration of the church year? Doesn’t the pastor realize that a Sunrise Service is continuing the worship of Sol Invictus – the Indomitable Sun!?

The great pastor Irenaeus of Lyon writes of a story his mentor, Polycarp, passed on about the Apostle John.

John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, “Dost thou know me?” “I do know thee, the first-born of Satan.” Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth; as Paul also says, ‘A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.’(Titus 3:10)[12]

We can easily relate with that sort of action. Remain unstained by the world! Let us refresh our memories as to what sort of man Polycarp was, reading again from the pen of Irenaeus, who grew up in the church of Smyrna:

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,—a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles,—that, namely, which is handed down by the Church. … Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles.[13]

And this is the very man, a contemporary of John the Beloved for some twenty years, who went to Rome to discuss the Passover or Quartodeciman controversy with Anicetus, bishop of Rome, and “parted in peace.” I was brought up short because I could not imagine that St. Polycarp would have parted in peace with someone who was infiltrating the Body of Messiah with paganism. I was forced to reevaluate my thoughts on who I should separate from and who I should embrace as a brother.

Irenaeus records the parting of Polycarp and Anicetus:

And in this state of affairs they held fellowship with each other; and Anicetus conceded to Polycarp in the Church the celebration of the Eucharist, by way of showing him respect; so that they parted in peace one from the other, maintaining peace with the whole Church, both those who did observe [this custom] and those who did not.

So we have on the one hand, St. John running out of a bathhouse and on the other hand, Polycarp making peace with a church that waited to observe the Passover feast till the following Sunday, rather than specifically on the 14th of Nisan. What shall we make of this? I think we can find a principle consistent with that of the evangelicals of the 1950s and 60s, though we may also discover that which was missing from their platform.

Who Are We?

There is something going on in evangelicalism where everyone is always reacting against whatever error they encountered in childhood. A lot of people who grew up in legalist, performance-based churches are over-reacting with an antinomian, repentance-lacking gospel.”

“The problem biblically is: legalism sends people to hell and antinomianism sends people to hell.”[14]

How interesting is it that the Evangelicals of the 1950s seemed to have a primary identity and a common mission, but lacked an unchanging standard (or firmly held to its unchanging nature, but heeded only a portion of it), while too many within the re-awakening of the Church to our Hebrew Roots seem to have a sort of kaleidoscopic grasp on some combination of our three main points.  Some it seems have regained an unchanging standard, only to get crosswise regarding our primary identity. Others have our primary identity and an unchanging standard locked in well, but begin to claim a unique mission. It seems some new permutation pops up on a blog, a forum, or in some book every other month.

In the following minutes I hope to convince you that we might most accurately identify ourselves as those who were created to imitate, commune with, and glorify God; as those who having fallen from our purpose, have accepted the offer of His strong right Hand extended in salvation, and have been subsequently re-joined to the family of those who are invited and enabled to imitate Messiah, in order that all who are willing from the watching world might also come to know Him for Who He Is—the Good News of God: All-Holy, All-Loving: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”[15]

“My word,” you might say, “that sounds like the Gospel.” Indeed? Ought it not! I cannot think of an identity more fitting than one with the fragrance of the Good News; one that in its very name speaks of He upon whom all my hopes rest.

Who is the Family of God?

God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem

Gen 9:27a

So, perhaps I’ve been carried away in the passion of my point, but it is necessary to be clear on this matter. We need to ask, “Who is the Body of Messiah?” And I need to speak carefully and clearly here.

First, the Body of Christ is all who believe regardless of what era they have or will live in, and regardless of their ethnicity (Gal. 3:6-9).  In other words, when it comes to the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:15-16) and the “Church”, these are one and the same; a testifying body of those who have been made new in Messiah (2 Cor. 5:16-17). At least so far as primary identity.

There is a valid secondary difference, or theological distinction which should be made. For example, while on the macro level the “Israel of God” and the “Church” are the same edah/ekklesia (witnessing body)[16], on the micro level one should accurately distinguish between Israel, the body to whom, “belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises,” and the Church, that portion of Israel (and her descendants) upon whom the Holy Spirit descended with an anointing to expand the household of God beyond Israel after the flesh, to in fact, carry news of God and his promises to every nation.

Israel, then, received that precursor to the Great Commission so well summarized in Jeremiah 7:23, “But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you,’” and to which we might append, that “all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD” (Ex 34:10b).

It was the Church, on the other hand, who—empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost with a new emphasis (the spreading rather than simply the keeping of God’s Way)—inherited from the disciples our revitalized mission: “Going, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.”[17]

In other words, the New Covenant—God’s plan to accomplish His original goal—was first revealed near the beginning of the world. It was hinted at in that promise made to the serpent, “The seed of the woman shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” It was more plainly spoken to Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And thus we see that it has always been evangelistic—witness-oriented—and that it was a mission intended for all nations to participate in.

Genesis 12:3 has always contained the seed of God’s singular mission: “a divine program to glorify the Lord by bringing salvation to all on planet earth.”[18] This primary mission was expressed at times in secondary strategies. The time-bound focal point of God’s commission to Israel after the flesh (though the eternal plan of universal inclusion was foreshadowed even then in individuals like Rahab, Ruth and Caleb, and in the message of prophets like Isaiah, Jonah and Obadiah) was for the world to marvel at the revelation of God as He worked on behalf of Israel, and to witness God’s character incarnated in the lives of His law-abiding people, in the midst of a land He would give them:

Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.

Observe (shamar) what I command you this day. … Take care (shamar), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst.

… for the LORD, whose name is El Qanna (Jealous), is a jealous God, lest you…whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.”[19]

See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?[20]

What is our purpose? Why were we created in His image? Because He designed no other image-bearers! If we confound the reflection of His loving and lawful nature, how is this world to believe in Him they have never seen accurately?

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”[21]

Note that Paul, intriguingly, starts out his plea to spread the Gospel with a declaration that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile; this in the midst of a passage that conflates the Gospel message itself with Deuteronomy 30: a description of the New Covenant declared to Israel, long before Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 37.

Israel and the Church Share a Common Mission

“And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.”

Mark 13:10

Israel is given a mission: in the Land that I will give you, witness of me, guard and faithfully observe my commandments that the world might know me. The Church is given the same mission in an expanded fashion: you are the heirs of an unfaithful family that has experienced judgment; as you, therefore, wander outside the Land I will once again restore to your family, make faithful observers of all peoples, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

How will your light shine? Same passage, next verse:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17

In other words, this shared mission of imitating and proclaiming our Father requires a common and unchanging standard. Otherwise, the people of God will not be identifiable by the watching world. Of necessity, those who aspire to the same goal will adopt a mutual primary identity.

What Plagued Israel and the Evangelicals?

Two errors hampered Israel in the time of Christ and the Evangelicals of the 1950s.

In the context of community, traditions enable the living out, or the inhabiting, of the Gospel.

Appropriate traditions will enable us to live out God’s commands in this time and place. Tradition often gets a bad rap in today’s world, but without it we could not function. What’s more, without a collection of consistent practices we will be unable to successfully reflect God’s image to the watching world, because we don’t reflect as individuals so much as we reflect as a Body.

Everywhere and always, wherever there have been believers, tradition has been a part of the three-legged stool that supports the lives, decisions, and practices of God-followers.

As we have mentioned, the three legs of that stool are Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. All three are used under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit to form the basis of our decision-making. The Scriptures are the words of God, written by the pens of men as they were carried along by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Throughout time the community of the faithful has continually recognized and affirmed the inspired nature of these words, and they came to be known to us as Scripture—the inerrant and reliable words of God to us His children.

These words, however, were written to different cultures than our own, between 2000 and 3000 years ago, to people who spoke different languages, and lived in a different part of the world under very different conditions than our own. As a result, in the process of wrestling with the meaning and significance of these very words of God, we consult the way that believers who went before us understood and applied them. The practices of those who have gone before us are known as Tradition.

Tradition, by its very nature, is a flexible, changing collection of practices. Traditions exist to aid in the honoring and observing of God’s way, and they vary from location to location, from time to time, and from society to society. Consequently, we must use our Reason to contemplate the words of Scripture and the history of Tradition in seeking to ensure that our practices continue to serve the same purpose for which they were created.

It must be remembered that Tradition is a tool that exists to serve the principle that is obedience to our Father, God. Whenever we begin to keep traditions for tradition’s sake, we have allowed that which exists to serve to become that which we serve, and a sense of bondage inevitably results—a new law is created.

This is what had happened to Israel at the time of Christ. Because their identity was more, “we are Israel” than “we are those rescued by God,” they grew proud in the accumulation of their efforts to be godly. Prompting Jesus to rebuke them vigorously, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”[22]

Similarly, having largely abandoned the idea that God’s law, as the description of His character, serves as our eternal standard, the Evangelicals of the 50’s ended up accumulating a collection of practices that helped them remain distinctive from the world, but in the absence of God’s law, their traditional applications became the engine of a new legalism. We are created to be law-abiders; if we forsake God’s law, we will fashion our own.

The Evangelicals were further destabilized in the process of interpreting God’s Word, by a failure to understand themselves as late-coming inheritors of Israel’s promises, but rather saw themselves as new and distinct from Israel, an interpolating entity, designed to propagate God’s message of repentance and salvation to the Gentiles, while God held Israel in abeyance, blinded and judged for their failure to recognize the Messiah.

In other words, while both Israel in the 1st century and the Evangelicals in the 20th century identified with at least a portion of a common mission—Israel emphasizing the call to obey, and the Evangelicals emphasizing the call to go and witness—they were each shaky as it pertains to God’s law and their primary identity.

I suspect that if we can maintain a balanced and biblical perspective on these three presuppositional ideas, then this movement may burn brightly for longer than the historic norm, or even, by God’s grace, usher in the longed for olam haba (world to come).


“My strong conviction is that the Lord is restoring the Hebraic foundations of the Church so that together we all can move forward in greater faithfulness and maturity in the service of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God. Toward that end we should be Father-focused, Christ-centered and Spirit-saturated. We should stand with and pray for Israel. Our teaching should strive to be biblically balanced and theologically sound.” – Dwight A. Pryor

The unchanging standard of God’s character, expressed in love and described by law, condemns all those alienated from Messiah, and instructs all those brought near to Him by grace through faith. Resting in thorough assurance of Christ having fulfilled the requirement of matching God’s character on our behalf, and subsequently planting His nature within us, we enthusiastically aspire to imitate Him ever more faithfully, as those declared brand new, set apart for God’s purposes, empowered and released to the process of transformation, and entrusted with ambassadorial responsibility—God making His appeal through us.

While the Church has many parts with different tasks and varying emphases, it is a single body, with a coalescing identity and mutual purpose: to imitate and share the good news of God, his existence and his nature. This universal congregation is to be formed by the immutable character of our shared Savior, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to a common mission, envisioned by God from the beginning and progressively revealed through the pages of Scripture.

While the Body of Christ is comprised of both natural-born and adopted children, it is crucial for us to commonly maintain our deepest identity as those re-born in Messiah. Ethnic variation is good and should be cherished, but in the economy of God it is a secondary identity that gives benefit to the whole Body only as it recognizes its subsidiary place. The inappropriate emphasis of Jewish or Gentile identity will inevitably result in aberrant theologies.

On the other hand, it is imperative for Gentiles to remember that we share an existing purpose. That we former strangers to the covenants join an old history, are adopted into an ancient family, and participate in promises made to Israel. May we never forget that in Messiah we are brought near to a continuing commonwealth, and that we never replace her, but rather, are blessed along with Israel, and anticipate her full restoration.

The Scriptures describe our corporate mission variously, but it may be accurately and succinctly expressed as an invitation to imitate Messiah, in order that His character will be reflected to those who do not yet know Him, and that His name may be exalted by the observation of His actions on behalf of His beloved people, Israel. We must, therefore, be singularly identifiable, compared to a common standard, and pursuing the same purpose. We are invited in order to invite, redeemed in order to redeem, and healed in order to heal.

In Part II, let’s explore God’s plan for how to bring about the reflection of His character in the lives of His children. I like to call the divine plan the Sanctification of the Mundane.

[1] J.I. Packer. Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J.C. Ryle. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002) 10.

[2] This is my re-working of comments made by J.I. Packer; c.f., Growing in Christ, 232.

[3]  J. I. Packer, Growing in Christ. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994. 232.

[4] 2 Corinthians 6:3. Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations are from the ESV®,  © 2001 Crossway.

[5] J. I. Packer, Growing in Christ. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 1996, 1994. 222.

[6] Leo Tolstoy. The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Trans. Aylmer Maude (London: Oxford University Press 1936). 136[2], in Kenneth O. Gangel and Jim Wilhoit. The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Spiritual Formation. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1994. (chapter 18 by Dallas Willard, “The Spirit is Willing: The Body As a Tool for Spiritual Formation”)

[7] John S. Dickerson. The Great Evangelical Recession. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013. 22.

[8] Ibid. (for a synopsis of the book see the interview at:

[9] Jonathan R. Wilson. Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World. Eugene: OR, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007. 3.

[11] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism, Revised and expanded. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1995), 246.

[12] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus Against Heresies” (Adv. Haer. 3.3-4), in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 416.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary,, accessed 06/25/13 at 19:46

[15] Exodus 34:6 (ESV)

[16] It should not be missed that עֵדָה (edah – congregation) and עֵדוּת (edut – testimony) share the same root, עֵד (ed – witness).

[17] Matthew 28:19-20 (author’s rendering)

[18] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Mission in the Old Testament: Israel as a Light to the Nations, Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012. xix.

[19] Exodus 34:10-16 (ESV)

[20] Deuteronomy 4:5-8 (ESV)

[21] Romans 10:12-15 (ESV)

[22] Mark 7:8

One thought on “Identification With Messiah – Part 1: Invitation to Imitation

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