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The Covenant Key

By Steve M. Schlissel
October 01, 1997

Shaul Mayer ben Yitzchak was the name given to me at my bris. Bris is the Yiddish word for covenant (brit in Hebrew) and it is the word used by Jews for the act of circumcision, God having identified the two in Genesis 17:10-13. Jewish sons are named at the bris, perhaps because naming in Scripture conveys the idea of new identity and new covenant life, just as circumcision speaks of regeneration (performed on the eighth day, i.e., the first day after a completed cycle of seven, thus signifying a new beginning).

The practice of naming at circumcisions is quite ancient (see Lk. 2:59 and 3:21). Not surprisingly, Jews born in Diaspora are often given names in keeping with their surrounding culture (as, e.g., in Jackie Mason's quip about "Tiffany Schwartz"). Jewish fathers, however, will "register" roughly equivalent Hebrew names for their children at religious ceremonies: at the bris, for boys, and at a naming ceremony in the synagogue, for girls. My given name is Steve Martin (yes, it helps when making reservations to use only my first two names), so Shaul Mayer was chosen as an equivalent. "Ben" means "son of." My father's Jewish name is Yitzchak Ben Avraham Zvi. Thus, Shaul Mayer Ben Yitzchak is Steve Martin son of Irving. (Above is a recent photo of three bens, the third being Jed, a.k.a. Yedidiah Zerachiah Ben Shaul Mayer.)

My mother was born in New England and my father in Brooklyn, both of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. My grandparentage is right out of Fiddler on the Roof:Tradition! That is my culture.

Or perhaps I should say, that was my culture. And I offer this modification not only as one who now sees through Christian eyes, but also as one who is a third-generation American. There is this pattern, you understand: the first generation arrives here with their culture very much intact; the next generation tries to balance the pursuit of the American Dream with the old ways; the third generation has its cultural heritage eviscerated by American popular culture, particularly television.

This phenomenon, incidentally, is why I am not overly fearful of an increased Muslim presence in the United States. By the year 2,000 there will be for the first time more Muslims than Jews in the USA. Yet, as long as Muslim children are watching TV — and based on my experience with Urban Nations, they are — you can be certain of their assimilation into the vacuous wasteland of American pseudo-culture. American "culture," like the American language, maintains and expands its ascendancy by offering substitutes for every element of its competitors' systems, and whatever it can't replace, it simply absorbs. Voila! Every system of absolutes is consumed with ease by the modern behemoth of relativistic humanism.

This "three generations and you're lost" phenomenon accounts for more characteristics of the generation called "boomers" — at least in New York City, where a great number of turn-of-the-century immigrants settled — than is often recognized. It has contributed to their profound sense of rootlessness, their lack of a sense of familial history, of a past. Deep in the belly of this third-American-generation there resounds a coyote-like howl, a howl directed not so much outwardly ("Is there anybody out there") as hindwardly ("Is anybody back there?").

The spiritual vacuum among third-generation American Jews has resulted in many of them latching onto other traditions, even cults — anything for mooring. Jews being drawn to the Gospel today are being drawn preponderantly from a secular pool. Most Jewish mission agencies, therefore, are merely riding the crest of a wave of secularization. More power to `em, but the Jewish shtick is really unnecessary. The above-mentioned sociological phenomenon is more responsible for their gaining a hearing than their donning of Jewish garb and their adoption of Jewish rituals. It is only the secularized that permit reapers in the field. Reaping remains very sparse among all but the most marginalized of my father's generation. And it is virtually non-existent, at all strata, among the seriously-orthodox Jews.

Declarations of "these are the end-times" which use the great number of twentieth-century Jewish conversions (some credible estimates are in the hundreds of thousands) as proof are injudicious and unconvincing. The real ingathering, spoken of in Romans 11 and elsewhere, must include — preeminently, I believe — the orthodox, the religiously observant, not just "chicken-soup" Jews, i.e., those whose identification as Jews is limited to an accident of birth and gastronomic preferences.

Orthodox Jews remain insulated and virtually unreachable. Humanly speaking (and I generally have difficulty speaking from other perspectives), the "safeguards" of rabbinical Judaism and tradition have nearly impenetrable strength, amazing and redundant strength. Much of that strength lies in what has rarely been reproduced among Christian communions: a pervasive sense of covenant. Like the Lutheran doctrine of "the real presence" of Christ in the Supper, the covenant is in, around, under and through every aspect of orthodox Jewish life.

Even among those who are not quite orthodox, the knowledge of what that covenant-consciousness produced in Jewish history leads them, as if by nature, to identify themselves with that history. For a serious Jew, the world is "Us (Jews) and Them (Gentiles)." Most of the Christian world, on the other hand, is divided (I almost ended the sentence there) between "My shibboleth and everyone else's."

In order for the church to seriously challenge Judaism, the church must evidence a relative fullness of covenant life. Until then, the orthodox Jew will not even bother to ask, "What have you got to offer?" To answer, "We have Christ," is frankly of too little avail if the Christ of which we speak is wrenched from the context of the covenant he authored. God identified the covenant with Jesus himself when he spoke through Isaiah, "I will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles" (42:6; cf. 49:8).

I pray you will forgive me when I say that the Gentiles have too often hacked the covenant to pieces and strained it through a Hellenic sieve.

Christ does not come to us as a line touching a circle, but he comes into history, into our history, as the Lord and Savior of history, both Jewish and Gentile history. He comes to fill and to redeem the whole circle. It is a sound maxim that in hermeneutics, context is king. It is just as important to remember that Jesus is the King of context. All of Scripture and history and the future belong to him. Orthodox Jews cannot interpret Scripture properly apart from Christ; we cannot interpret Christ properly apart from Scripture — and that means all of Scripture.

There is no covenant where there is no covenant law.

I have written elsewhere about an experience I had 18 years ago. My friend and co-laborer, David Schildkraut (who was raised an orthodox Jew), and I were witnessing to two Chasidic Jews. As good dispensationalists, when the subject of the Law of God came up, we told them that God's Law just does not apply in this dispensation. Their jaws dropped and they looked at us as if we were from Mars. Silence. The thought that God's holy Law could simply be dispensed with filled them with a revolting horror. What sort of religion, they thought, could Christianity be if it makes Psalm 119 irrelevant, if that holy Psalm could no longer be looked upon as accurately expressing the soul of the covenant man?

They, of course, were right. And it is the Reformed Faith, especially, which recognizes the legitimacy of their viewpoint on this subject. It is also the Reformed Faith which has most highly cherished the hope of Israel's re-ingrafting and which has maintained an emphasis on the importance of the church's role in the fulfillment of that hope. Charles Hodge wrote, "It is through the mercy shown to the Gentiles, according to Paul, that the Jews are to be brought in, which implies that the former are to be instrumental in the restoration of the latter." He goes on to observe that the mutual relation of the Christian church to the Jews should produce in the minds of all the followers of Christ, "1) a sense of obligation, 2) a sincere compassion, 3) the banishment of all ill feelings of contempt toward them, and 4) an earnest desire for their restoration."

I would add a number 5: We should admit when the Jews have bested us and learn from them. I contend that in the matter of comprehensive covenant thinking, we need to learn quite a bit from the Jews. Until we do, much of what we say will remain abstract, one-dimensional and hollow. And did I mention unconvincing? The covenant is the key which can lead the church into paths of righteousness for His name's sake, the key which can renew our power in the Spirit to conduct Biblical missions which endeavor to teach everything which Christ has commanded us (not just four or five points), the key to enable us to look lovingly upon our Christian brothers and sisters — even those who may not agree with all our jots and tittles. It is the key to the historical realization of that which was prayed for by our Lord: "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." That unity is not uniformity; it is in the covenant, not in a corporation. The key is the covenant and it lies close at hand to the Reformed family of churches, yet it properly belongs to all who call upon His name. Employing this key will enable us to respond to the demand, "Show me the fruit!," by pointing to a covenant cornucopia.


Topics: Culture , Biblical Law, Reformed Thought, Dispensationalism

Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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