June 27, 2007

Secular Jew

2007 1518 page17 caprank Scheib, who works near me, stood in my office door and asked, “When’s Passover this year?” My first thought was, How should I know? Never having had any interest in Jewish holidays before becoming an Adventist, I have even less now. Though supportive of believers who keep Jewish traditions alive, and who worship Jesus in a Jewish style (which even I prefer over our nineteenth-century Methodist one), I’d never take the initiative to actually do it myself. When Jewish believers (Adventist or otherwise) chide me about my languor on these things, I retort, jokingly: “I am what I’ve always been—a ‘secular’ Jew.”
With one exception. About a year after coming to the General Conference (1984), I started studying biblical Hebrew through a correspondence course from the University of Wisconsin. For four torturous years I labored on my own to learn it. Afterward, I went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where I earned a master’s in Ancient Northwest Semitic Languages. Since then, I have immersed myself in biblical Hebrew. I do all my personal devotions in it, and haven’t preached out of an English Old Testament since, probably, Bush ’41. Though hardly a Jacques Doukhan or a Roy Gane, even I could attain a level of proficiency after 22 years.
All this background now leads into my story. About seven years ago I spent two weeks preaching in Poland. I also visited Auschwitz—a sobering, gut-wrenching experience for most Gentiles, so how much more for me? I was outside the gate of the main death camp, when a bus, screeching and fuming, pulled up. The door opened and out came a single passenger, a young bearded man in full Orthodox Jewish regalia. Wondering where he came from, I cautiously approached. Acting casual and nonthreatening, I said, “Yo, dude, where’re you from?”
2007 1518 page17He looked at me and shrugged, obviously not understanding.
Now, however much biblical Hebrew I could read or understand, people don’t speak it today (it’s not modern Hebrew), and I never before made an attempt to. Nevertheless, pulling together a few words from the Old Testament’s original tongue, I uttered to him, “Mah eretz?” (“What land?”)
Yisrael,” he instantly replied.
I was thrilled. This was the first time in all these years I used my biblical Hebrew to try communicating with someone—and it worked!
Then it hit me: Here I am, a Jewish believer in Jesus, for the first time in my life conversing in biblical Hebrew, and with an Orthodox Jew, from Israel—outside the gates of Auschwitz.
The irony’s inescapable.
I always use this column to make a point, but I wasn’t sure what point to take away from this story, except to remind the church that our mission to the world also includes Jews, whom the Lord has not forsaken. The apostle Paul wrote: “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew” (Rom. 11:1, 2).
Of course, Jews are not saved through ethnicity or nationality; they are, as everyone else, saved one-by-one through faith in the Messiah, Yeshua HaMaschaih.
Yet I can’t help but think that in the last days, as God’s law, and especially the Sabbath, comes into sharp focus, Jews—many as serious about the Ten Commandments as Adventists are—will have a role in helping clarify some issues before the world. It’s not unreasonable, is it, with the seventh-day Sabbath so central to final events, that folks who have been keeping the seventh-day Sabbath from before Sinai should be, along with Adventists (kind of the new kids on the block when it comes to Sabbathkeeping), thrust into the forefront of the final conflict too?
No, it’s not unreasonable at all. In fact, because of their Sabbathkeeping, many of the ancestors of the ancient covenant people remain intricately linked to the New Covenant symbol of salvation by faith alone (see Hebrews 4). And when it becomes an outward mark of loyalty to the Lord, they’ll already be “keeping the commandments of God.” They’ll just need us, then, to tell them about “the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 14:12).
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. He also hosts a television program on the Hope Channel called CLIFF!