Approved By Men
How important is it to be “approved by men”?
I would bet that the most common answer in many sectors of the Hebrew roots movement (and Christianity as well) would be, “Not at all! I don’t need any man’s approval! I’m not a people-pleaser! I’m only interested in doing what God wants.”
Many people have more or less repeated that exact same thought to me over the years. I guess it sounds very pious to say that one isn’t interested in what other people think of his religion. This attitude paints the picture of a beacon of light in the darkness. A lone warrior-saint, fighting the good fight, all by himself—God’s lone soldier in the sea of battle.
There’s a problem with this, though. A lone warrior in the middle of a battle gets killed pretty quickly. God didn’t design the body of Messiah to operate that way. Our Master said to the Father, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one.”
Similarly, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ... The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’... But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.”
Our faith only works in community. It only works when we respect and value one another and when we can operate together, without division.
It is with this idea in mind that Paul wrote to the Romans (14:17-19), “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
These aren’t popular verses in the Hebrew roots movement. Romans 14 is indeed a difficult passage for those of us who are Gentiles yet do everything we can to honor the Apostles’ request of us to eat properly slaughtered and bled meat (see the FFOZ resource Biblically Kosher, by Aaron Eby, for this interpretation of the Jerusalem Council’s decision in Acts 15). It is difficult because Paul seems to be minimizing apostolic dietary laws about food contaminated by idolatry in favor of something else.
Mark Nanos sheds light on Romans 14 in his book The Mystery of Romans. In his view, the issue in Rome was that Gentiles weren’t being careful about the meat they ate. They weren’t living up to the expectations of the apostles. As a result, Jews who had not yet accepted Yeshua as the Messiah were skeptical. Can these Gentiles really be following a Jewish rabbi if they eat meat sacrificed to idols? The early Christians’ failure to adopt the Apostles’ standard reflected poorly on our Master, and Paul was determined to fix this problem.
To do this, Paul didn’t appeal to the Jerusalem Council or to the food laws of the Torah. He appealed to one of the most basic commandments—love your neighbor as yourself. He told the Romans that if their way of practicing isolated them from the broader community of faith—which Paul saw as including non-Yeshua-believing Jews—then it wasn’t healthy. It is in this context that Paul writes that the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, so much as it is righteousness and peace and joy in the Spirit. He then appeals to the Romans to practice in such a way that they will be acceptable to God and approved by men.
This idea has some pretty radical implications for us today—however, they are not immediately obvious. After all, the modern Messianic Gentile is not in the same place as his forbears in Rome nearly two thousand years ago. However, he is facing a similar problem. Rather than his lack of observance keeping him from being accepted by the broader Jewish community (the problem in Rome), instead it is his desire to keep the Torah that isolates him from the broader Christian community.
Paul’s advice to us today would probably be couched in different terminology. I doubt that he would say anything as vague as “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking.” Seeing the vast landscape of Christianity and its utter disdain for dietary laws, I imagine he would try to bring correction in this area and remind Christians of the obligations the apostles laid on them in Acts 15.
However, I have no reason to believe that Paul’s essential priorities would be any different in our situation. For Paul, unity, respect, mutual edification and upbuilding, and submission to one another were important concepts—Torah concepts. He would be just as concerned today as he was in the first century with making sure that the Messianic Gentile’s observance is practiced in such a way that he can be acceptable to God and approved by men.
What does this mean for the Messianic Gentile today?
I see two primary applications. First, when a Messianic Gentile takes on aspects of Torah observance, it should be done in such a way that he does not offend, isolate, or disrespect the congregational Messianic Jewish movement. While Messianic Gentiles may differ from the stances taken by denominational Messianic Judaism, it is vitally important to maintain a healthy relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters in the faith. As Jews, they have a relationship to the Sinai covenant and to broader Judaism that we do not have. When they speak to the obligations of the Messianic Gentile, we should listen and be respectful, even if we disagree. Furthermore, we should not try to dictate to Messianic Jews what their observance should look like.
I realize that this sounds like a one-way street. However, this is the apostolic model. Paul wrote to the Romans that they were grafted in to a tree that was not naturally theirs, and that they shouldn’t be arrogant even toward the broken-off branches (unbelieving Jews; see Romans 11:13ff.). How much more should Messianic Gentiles be respectful toward their Jewish brethren, to whom they owe a great spiritual debt, as we share in their blessings (and not the other way around; see Romans 15:27).
The second major application I see in this passage is that Messianic Gentiles should strive to portray and apply the Torah in such a way that they win the approval of Christians who otherwise have no knowledge of or investment in the Torah. When a mainstream Christian meets a Messianic Gentile, their first thought shouldn’t be, “Man, this person is a legalist.” Rather, they should think “Wow, this person is really devout and serious about their faith. I wish I could be more like them.”
Believe it or not, it is often up to you which reaction you get. Your attitude toward the commandments and toward other people will go a long way toward causing others to see the Torah in a positive light, and as a blessing rather than a curse. By your words and actions, you can bring unity and peace rather than discord and confusion.
You may think I am being overly optimistic—and though I am not often accused of being an optimist, perhaps I am in this case. However, the outcome is not up to us. Our job is to do the best we can, and that includes being intentional about not creating unnecessary barriers between us and others. By keeping lines of communication open, and by being respectful toward those with whom we disagree, we honor the Messiah and we create opportunities to shine God’s light into the lives of others.
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