Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Book Write-Up: Touching the Heart of God, by Paul Wilbur

Paul Wilbur.  Touching the Heart of God: Embracing the Calendar of the Kingdom.  Apopka, FL: Certa Books, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Paul Wilbur is a Messianic Jewish musician.  I love his music and have three of his CDs.

If I were to identify a central theme of Touching the Heart of God, it would be that Paul Wilbur encourages Christians to observe, or at least honor, the feasts that the Jews observe.  This would include the feasts that are in Leviticus 23, and also Purim and Hanukkah.  For Wilbur, these feasts are ways that believers can celebrate God’s works in history and anticipate God’s works to come.

That, at the base-level, is what Wilbur is arguing.  Also, Wilbur wants for Gentile churches to be more sensitive to Messianic Jews and their practices, in pursuing the unity that God wants for Christians to have.  Those are the consistent messages in this book.  On some other issues in the book (issues that are still related to the central issues), Wilbur does not strike me as overly consistent.  For example, does God require Christians, including Gentile Christians, to observe the Old Testament feasts?  There are times when Wilbur explicitly answers that question in the negative, but there are also times when he seems to be leaning in the “yes” direction.  A strong part of me does not fault Wilbur for his inconsistency on this, for Wilbur is wrestling with a biblical text that says all sorts of things: one that says that the barrier of commandments between Jews and Gentiles has been torn down in Christ (Ephesians 2:15) and that appears to exempt Gentiles from keeping the Torah (Acts 15), but one that also affirms that Gentiles in the time of Israel’s eschatological restoration will be required to observe the Feast of Tabernacles (Zechariah 14).  I would have preferred for Wilbur to have arrived at a neater resolution of these tensions, without being too artificial in smoothing out the apparent differences.  Maybe I am too idealistic in this regard; at the same time, I have read people who have taken their best shot at resolving difficult issues, and I am intrigued with what they come up with, even if I do not entirely agree with their conclusions.  I was hoping to find this in Wilbur’s book.

Wilbur is also slightly inconsistent in his categorization of the biblical festivals.  He states that the spring feasts are about what God did in the past, which includes the history of Israel in the Old Testament and also the work of Christ that resulted from Christ’s first coming, whereas the fall feasts are about what God did in the future, in an eschatological sense.  The spring feasts are Passover, the Days of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Firstfruits, and Pentecost, and the fall feasts are the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles.  Obviously, one cannot take Wilbur’s categorization in an absolute sense: the Feast of Tabernacles is a fall festival, but it commemorates the past, the time when the Israelites dwelt in booths in the wilderness (Leviticus 23:43).  The Day of Atonement is also a fall festival, but, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, it concerns the work of Christ as high priest.  There are indications in the book that Wilbur himself does not take his categorization of the feasts in an absolute sense.  My favorite passage in the book is on page 60, where Wilbur appears to imply that Passover and Pentecost, both spring festivals, will have a future fulfillment.  Whereas the Passover was originally about Israel’s exodus from Egypt, in the future it will celebrate the gathering of the Jewish people from all nations.  Pentecost was originally about the giving of the Torah, and it would later be the day on which the Christians would receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), but, according to Wilbur, in the future it will concern all of Israel’s sons and daughters prophesying (Joel 2).  I wish that more of the book was like this passage on page 60, acknowledging that the biblical holy days could have a past and future fulfillment, and maybe even discussing how elements of Israel’s past will occur again in the future (i.e., an exodus, Israel dwelling the wilderness, Israel receiving a revelation of God, etc.).  The book would have been so much richer.

Wilbur seems to imply that he consulted Messianic Jewish scholar Michael Brown in writing this book.  In my opinion, the book would have been better had he done so more.  Then, the book would have cited primary sources about Jewish traditions.  The section about Messiah ben Joseph and Messiah ben David would have been better: Wilbur, in my mind, gets some things wrong in that section, but his overall point appears to be that there are Jewish traditions that apply Isaiah 53 to the Messiah; consulting Michael Brown or his books would have made that section a lot stronger.  Wilbur states that Christmas is not pagan but was observed in patristic times, so he does not strike me as anti-Christmas.  That is a valid and a scholarly argument, but the same can be said for honoring Sunday, the first day of the week, and yet Wilbur seems to argue that Constantine replaced the Sabbath with Sunday.  Had Wilbur consulted scholars and scholarship more, this book could have been more interesting and more nuanced.

(I should add that Wilbur’s stance towards paganism and Gentile Christianity was another example of his apparent inconsistency.  He criticized Easter throughout the book.  He appears to buy into the view that Easter can be traced back to Nimrod’s wife!  You would think that he is against God’s people doing pagan things or drawing from the pagans, but he seems to imply a couple of times that Rosh Hoshanah is related, in some manner, to the Babylonian New Year festival.  Moreover, Wilbur is not against Christians worshiping on Sunday, but he is for adding Jewish elements to churches, such as having a Friday night service.)

Those without much familiarity with Jewish festivals may find this book interesting.  I come from a Christian tradition that did observe them (Armstrongism), so I did not learn a whole lot from Wilbur’s book.  Still, Wilbur could have made the book a lot richer than it is.

There was something to which the book sensitized me, however, and that is how evangelical Christianity is becoming increasingly open to Jewish customs.  Do you remember Bill McCartney, the football coach who helped start Promise Keepers?  Do you ever wonder what happened to him?  Well, according to Wilbur, McCartney is involved in Messianic Judaism.  Evangelical churches are having Friday night services in which the Torah is read.  I thought back to a book that I read by evangelical scholar Walter Kaiser, which argued that Christians would do well to observe the Levitical dietary laws.  I, for one, applaud the attempts of evangelicals to connect with the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, to dig deeply into what is in the Hebrew Bible, just so long as it does not lead to legalism (i.e., saying that Gentile Christians have to observe Old Testament laws).  Wilbur navigates through these delicate issues, and I appreciate his effort and his sensitivity to certain nuances.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book through Bookcrash, in exchange for an honest review.

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