Q&A: The Hebrew Roots Movement

The Hebrew Roots Movement

Question

What is the Hebrew Roots Movement and why are they incorrect? A friend is involved in this and they seem messed up in their theology. Can you help?

Answer

Understanding the Law

I promise you, truly I say to you, as long as heaven and earth endure, not one jot or tittle of the law will pass away until all has come to pass (Matthew 5:18).

Everything in the law—the Pentateuch—matters. None of it just goes void. Within Reformed circles we make a distinction between the civil, ceremonial, and moral laws of Moses. While the entire law has been fulfilled in Christ, these distinctions help us in applying the law to our own lives today.

We observe the moral law enshrined in such places as the Ten Commandments. These are truths that should always be followed. However, the civil and ceremonial laws were laws given to Israel when it was a theocracy. As believers in Jesus Christ, we don’t follow these laws because we understand that Israel as a theocracy no longer exists and that these laws pointed forward to Jesus and have been fulfilled. However, even the civil and ceremonial laws had a moral principle that God was applying to Israel. So, though the civil and ceremonials laws are in one sense abrogated, we should still ask ourselves today, what are the moral principles that we can glean and apply from them?

The law has been written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10; 10:16; cf. Rom. 2:14-15). As we study the law to learn what God would have us do "in Christ," we see there are essentially three uses of the law.

In its first use, the law reveals the character of God. Like a mirror, it reflects our own unrighteousness against God’s definitive standard of perfect holy righteousness. In this way, the law serves as a schoolmaster to drive us to Christ (Gal. 3:24-25).

In its second use, the law functions as a restraint against sin, especially when backed by a civil code that administers punishment for proven offenses (Deut. 13:6-11; 19:16-21; Rom. 13:3-4). In general, its warnings, cautions, and threats restrain individuals from being as bad as they could be. Thus civil order is preserved.

In its third use, the law reveals to us what is pleasing to God. Christians are not under the old covenant stipulations; we are no longer under the curse of the law. However, at the same time we are called to imitate Christ and to live as people who seek to please a holy God (Eph. 5:10; Col. 1:9-12) who wrote the law. The law, therefore, is holy, just, and good (Rom. 7:12).

So, on the one hand, when we are waving goodbye to the law with our left hand, at the same time we are extending our right hand to shake the hand of the law and saying with the psalmist, "Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day" (Psa. 119:97).

Please keep this understanding in mind throughout the following as I now address the Hebrew Roots Movement which, among other difficulties, misunderstands the law and its application.

The Hebrew Roots Movement

And by him [Jesus] everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses (Acts 13:39).

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20).

But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code (Romans 6:7).

The natural predisposition of human beings is to make or earn our own way. "Perfect thyself" is our motto. Works, works, works is our path. Obeying the law is our aim. There’s immense pride in being self-made men and women, and this is what the Hebrew Roots Movement ultimately teaches. But as Reverend Bryn MacPhail has commented, "Rather than serving as a ladder, which leads to God’s favour, we find that the law acts as a hammer, intent on smashing our self-righteousness." ("The Necessity of the Law That Cannot Save," Romans 3:19-31).

The Hebrew Roots Movement (HRM) is a dangerous cult. It is a modern-day Galatian heresy, a works-righteousness religion, and another gospel (Gal. 1:8-9). It twists and turns certain texts of inspired Scripture to puzzle, confuse and cloud the hearts of those that embrace this movement.

Properly defining the movement is rather difficult as there is presently no central hierarchy in the organization. However, we can comment on some of the major false tenants of HRM and essentially its misunderstanding of the law.

Matthew 5:17 and the Law of Moses

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 (Matthew 5:17).

HRM believes that Christ’s death on the cross was not the end of the Mosaic law but instead revived it: we are to obey the entire law just as Israel was supposed to! They use a misunderstanding of Matthew 5:17 to enforce their argument. To them, this verse means that the law must still be in full force today.

However, they overlook the fact that Jesus came to fulfill the law by living a completely sinless life (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 7:27; 1 John 3:5) and then dying as the once-and-for-all definitive sacrifice for his people (Heb. 10:10, 12; cf. 1 Cor. 5:7). Jesus Christ fulfilled the law! (Col. 2:14). This is why Paul wrote that those who have been saved by Christ alone are no longer under the law (Rom. 6:14; 7:4; Gal. 5:18).

To reason that we must maintain the Mosaic law today as Israel had tried and failed to do, would be to make the very birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ absolutely meaningless.

John 14:15 and the Law of Moses

If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).

HRM maintains that if we love Christ then we must keep the entire Mosaic law. But we must consider the context of John 14:15. Earlier this same evening and just hours before the greatest act of love in redemptive history (John 15:13)—the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus—he commanded his disciples to love one another (John 13:34-35). Jesus gave numerous other commands during his earthly ministry (Matt. 4:17; 5:44-45; 16:24-25; 28:18-20; Luke 21:36; John 14:11; etc.), but while I believe Jesus was also including the Ten Commandments (Matt. 7:12; Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14), he wasn’t referring to every nook and cranny of the entire law. As I described above, it was to be a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Gal. 3:24-25). In just hours, the temple veil would be ripped from top to bottom, so the entire law could no longer be kept! (Matt. 27:51). One greater than Moses is the minister of the new covenant (Heb. 3:1-6).

Acts 15 and the Law of Moses

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood (Acts 15:19-20).

HRM believes all Christians are required to follow the Jewish laws and practices from the books of Moses (i.e., Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). This is similar to what transpired in Acts 15:5 which states, "But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, 'It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.'" As seen in this text, some Jewish Christians thought that the Gentile believers should be circumcised and be under the law of Moses.

It was after some debate that Peter (a Jew) said, "Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will" (Acts 15:10-11). Notice that Peter says the Gentiles are saved by Christ alone and not by the law (cf. Rom. 6:14; Gal. 5:2, 3, et. al.). Peter makes this even clearer when he said, "and he made no distinction between us [Jews] and them [Gentiles], having cleansed their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:9).

While this reply would seem to settle the matter (that Christians are no longer under the law of Moses), HRM points to what happened after this to make their case. In Acts 15:19-20, James says, "Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood" (cf. Acts 15:29; 21:25). These four restrictions are similar to regulations placed on foreigners who desired to stay in the land of Israel. These foreigners (Gentiles) were to abstain from pagan sacrifices (Lev. 17:8-9), from blood (Lev. 17:10-14), things strangled (Lev. 17:13-14), and sexual immorality (Lev. 18:6-23). Since this is part of the Mosaic law, HRM says that Jesus' obedience to the entire law is what the Bible teaches.

It's important to note here that James does not include the entire law of Moses; he doesn’t even mention circumcision (Gen. 17:9-14; Acts 15:5). And in Acts 15:23-29, we observe that the Jerusalem Council sent a letter specifically stating that the entire law didn’t have to be kept (Acts 15:28). And when the Gentile Christians in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, etc., read the letter, they "rejoiced because of its encouragement" (Acts 15:31). Would they be rejoicing if they were going to have to undergo circumcision and still be under the entire law?

If the true gospel is Jesus plus nothing else, why these four restrictions? For all God’s saints these are instead four principles to further help us in faithful living. James’ letter wasn’t one regarding salvation, but rather addressing the question of how all those in Christ should live after receiving Christ. In other words, though the gospel is Jesus and nothing else, it does result in holy living and includes the previously mentioned four principles.

These commands are mentioned three times in the New Testament (Acts 15:19-20; 15:29; 21:25; cf. Lev. 17:8-18:23; Ezek. 33:26-28; Zech. 9:7), so unlike some others, I don’t see them as temporary concessions for the sake of unity. Paul spoke of not knowingly eating food ascribed to idols because it is idolatrous worship (1 Cor. 10:19-22; cf. Acts 15:20, 29; Rev. 2:14-17, 2:20). This regulation for Christians still continues today; it was not temporary. The commandment of not eating blood and strangled things goes back to Noah’s time before the law of Moses (Gen. 9:3-7). In this universal Noahic command, God declared that all life was sacred and life is in the blood. And little needs to be said regarding the ongoing command not to engage in sexual immorality. It is implied in Genesis 2:20-24 well before the Law of Moses and is an ongoing new covenant command as well. So, in essence, in Acts 15 the Jerusalem Council was speaking of how all Christians, whether Jew or Gentile, should therefore live.

Colossians 2:16-17 and the Law of Moses

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:16-17).

HRM believes all Christians should adhere to the teachings of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible). Among other things, keeping the Torah means keeping the dietary laws, celebrating Jewish feasts and festivals, and keeping the Sabbath on Saturday. However, when we read Colossians 2:16-17 we see that the apostle Paul disagrees with this.

Some Jewish believers in Paul’s day would have been upset by Gentile believers for their disinterest in the law-life of Judaism. On the other hand, Gentiles would have been somewhat bewildered about all the fuss that was being made since Christ fulfilled all the Law and the Prophets (Luke16:16). What's needed is understanding, not compromise.

Christ Jesus is our Sabbath rest because he is "Lord of the Sabbath" (Matt. 12:8). He chose in eternity past to resurrect on a Sunday. Why didn’t Jesus choose to resurrect on a Saturday instead of Sunday? It is, after all, his Day of days to choose. Why Sunday? Because he did it in part to fulfill the feasts. Leviticus 23 describes the Sabbath together with seven feasts. The Hebrew word for feasts is moadim and is translated as "appointed times." All the feasts point to Christ and thus he fulfills them:

  • Passover ( Pesach, Lev. 23:4-8) – Passover began on the 14th of Nisan. Similar to the unblemished lambs in numerous sacrifices before, Jesus was the perfect Passover lamb (1 Pet. 1:19). Like the lambs, not a single bone of Jesus was broken (Exod. 12:46; John 19:33, 36). Jesus was presented to Israel as the final perfect (i.e. sinless) sacrifice before dying on the 14th day of Nisan (John 19:14). The Passover lambs died at twilight (Exod. 12:6; Lev. 23:5) as did Jesus (Matt. 27:45-50). Christ is our Passover (1 Cor. 5:7).
  • Unleavened Bread (Chag HaMatzot, Lev. 23:6) – Jesus was buried on the 15th of Nisan – the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Scripture often uses leaven as a picture of sin (Mark 8:15; 1 Cor. 5:6). Jesus died for the sins of his people (1 Pet. 3:18). Though sinless, he took his people’s sin upon himself and he died for everyone one of our sins. And Jesus is likened to a kernel of wheat planted in the ground that would soon burst forth as the bread of life (John 6:35-51).
  • Firstfruits (Yom HaBikkurim, Lev. 23: 9-11) – was on the 17th of Nisan. On this day the harvest was celebrated by waving a sheaf of the first ripened grain before the Lord. Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, i.e., the Feast of Firstfruits. His resurrection was a wave offering before the Father that signaled that there would be many more resurrections to follow (Rom. 8:23). Christ is our Firstfruits (1 Cor. 15:20).
  • Pentecost (Shavuot, Lev 23: 15-16) – was the 6th of Sivan Shavuot. Pentecost (Gk., meaning "fifty") was commemorated to celebrate the day that the Lord gave Moses the law on Mt. Sinai and the subsequent birth of Israel as a nation (Exod. 19). Another holy nation, the invisible church (1 Pet. 2:9) was reborn with both Gentiles and Jews on the day of Pentecost. Fifty days after our Lord’s ascension, God once again descended upon his people with power from on high (Acts 2:3).
  • Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah, Lev. 23:24) – is also called "Head of the Year," because it marks the beginning of the Jewish civil calendar. And Jesus marked the advent of a new "now, but not yet," age in his finished work upon the cross. In Israel, trumpets called people to gather before God. The voice of Jesus, the eternal Word of God himself (John 1:1) called the prophets, apostles and continues to call all believers today to worship him (Heb. 10:25). At the last day, the Lord will sound like a trumpet (1 Cor. 15:51-52; 1 Thess. 4:16-17) as he returns to gather his people (Rev. 1:10; 4:1). Christ will descend from heaven, his angels will gather his elect from the four corners of the earth, the dead will be raised imperishable and we will all be changed in a moment and twinkling of an eye (Matt. 24:31; 1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Thess. 4:16). Like the start of a new year, this will usher in the continuing nature of eternal age. PS: Eternal life has already begun (John 3:16; 1 John 5:11-13).
  • Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur, Lev. 23:26-28) – was observed on the 10th of Tishri. The Jews (all Israel, the invisible Church) look upon him whom they have pierced and weep bitterly (Zech. 12:10). In the crucifixion, Jesus atoned for the sins of all his people (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 3:18).
  • Tabernacles (Sukkot, Lev. 23:33-34, 42) – was observed on the 15th of Tishri. The feast memorialized the Israelites living in tabernacles when the Lord brought them out of Egypt (Exod. 25:8; Lev. 23:43). Jesus delivered his invisible church out of bondage (Rom. 7:24-25). Jesus is the fulfillment of the tabernacles—God with us (Isa 7:14). The Lord through his Spirit now tabernacles with his people (Heb. 8:1-2).

Christ came in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4), at a very specific time in the "now, but not yet" of his kingdom, to fulfill every one of these feasts. It is finished! To attempt to fulfill these feasts today is to say that Jesus didn’t fulfill them; that is, he left part of his job unfinished and so we must add to Christ’s finished work upon the cross. This is heresy.

The gospel doesn’t depend on keeping the law of Moses. Paul told the Colossian Gentiles who were of the uncircumcision that they had been "circumcised with a circumcision made without hands" having been saved "through faith in the powerful working of God" (Col. 2:11-12). This circumcision made without hands refers to a circumcision of the heart, which comes through the Spirit (Rom. 2:25-29), not the Mosaic law which cannot save (Acts 13:39; Rom. 3:20; 8:3).

In Conclusion

Christians aren’t without laws. All the law is useful for instruction (2 Tim. 3:16). And there is nothing wrong with Christians learning about our Hebrew roots. We are, after all, "all Israel" (Rom. 11:26; cf. Rom. 2:28-29). However, if in our studies we don’t keep in mind that the kingdom of God is about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17) and not about food and drink, then we’ve misunderstood what Scripture is teaching. Christianity is not a works-righteousness religion (Tit. 3:5).

Instead of Hebrew roots, we should be committed to the Jesus Roots Movement, which is the gospel. The gospel is not complicated. It's very easy. As Paul wrote, "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3-4). That’s it. Christ alone. His work. Not Moses’ or ours. There is no requirement to keep circumcision, festivals or a Saturday Sabbath in order to be saved. It’s simply, "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved" (Rom. 10:9-10).

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).