The Hebrew Roots Movement and Paul’s View of the Ceremonial Law
by Nicholas J Mattei
Squabbles about the law are not new. They have existed ever since the early church and they have continued on down through the centuries and are still with us today and will be with us until the Lord’s return. One such disagreement that has arisen within the last few decades has been that of the Christian’s relation to the ceremonial law. Movements such as the Hebrew Roots Movement have emphasized the observance for Christians of Old Testament dietary laws, festivals, Saturday Sabbath, and even Hebrew pronunciations of the name of Jesus or God. The question I am seeking to answer is what would the Apostle Paul have to say about all of this?
The Hebrew Roots Movement has been described by some in the movement as “21st century Christians meet the 1st century faith of the early church,” or another way they put it is:
“The Hebrew Roots Movement is a general term used for an emerging grassroots spiritual awakening taking place worldwide with Christians returning to the original first century faith, beliefs, and understanding of the Scriptures as taught by the Messiah, Early Church and Apostles. Hebrew Roots is not a denomination or church, but rather a mindset seeking to emulate Jesus (Y'shua) as much as possible.”
Some within this movement have been known to reject the Pauline epistles as canonical and, in some of the most extreme cases, have even rejected the deity of Christ. This is due in part because of the fact that they believe that the Christian church became corrupted early on by Greek philosophy and paganism.
The Hebrew Roots Movement is not monolithic, and it can be hard to pin down what most of its adherents generally agree upon. This is due in part because of the fact that this movement is mostly an internet and YouTube phenomenon with no real academic scholarship or published works. Despite this fact, there are thousands of people online who are imbibing this movement’s teachings and forming online virtual house churches and spreading these doctrines on social media. Examples of some internet ministries and teachers under the HRM umbrella include: 119 Ministries, Philia Ministries, Wildbranch Ministry, Unlearn the Lies, Torah Life Ministries, Soreshim Ministries, Rooted in Torah, Rob Skiba, Michael Rood, and Jim Staley. The HRM’s history is also difficult to trace as Tim Chaffey has commented,
It is difficult to document the movement’s history because of its lack of organizational structure, but the modern HRM has been influenced in some ways by Seventh-Day Adventism and the Worldwide Church of God during the lifetime of its founder, Herbert W. Armstrong. Additionally, the HRM has been influenced by the practices of Messianic Jews, but the similarities between the groups are superficial and should not be conflated. In fact, some Messianic Jewish organizations have denounced the beliefs of the HRM.
One such Jewish believer, or Messianic Jew, named Stephen Katz has said, “Much of the Jewish Roots Movement is actually based on later Jewish/rabbinic tradition.” Some from the HMR seem to draw more of their beliefs and practices from the Talmud than they do from the Tanakh or New Testament.
What then are some beliefs that basically unite all within the HRM? In my analysis it comes down to this, that as far as it is possible to obey them, the ceremonial laws of the Torah are still binding on believers. To advance such teaching, those within the HMR have to get around a fairly large obstacle, and that obstacle is the Apostle Paul and his NT epistles. I will not be addressing those within the movement that reject the canonicity of Paul’s epistles, but the ones who hold to the inspiration of Paul’s epistles. How do they then interpret Paul’s teaching on the law? They basically teach an Old Testament dominant hermeneutic that reads and understands the NT from a 1st century Jewish lens and because of this they claim that “the teachings of the Apostle Paul are not understood clearly or taught correctly by Christian pastors today.” They reject a three-fold division of the law and they say that because we have the Law written on our hearts in the New Covenant, we will then walk in obedience to all of the OT commandments, including ceremonial laws, not as a way to be saved but out of a thankful and renewed heart. Jesus said, “if you love Me you will keep My commandments” didn’t He? The main questions then are does Paul treat the whole OT law as one unit, or does he make a distinction between the moral and ceremonial law? Does Paul say the ceremonial law has been done away with in Christ? Does Paul believe that Christians need to observe all OT ceremonial laws as a way of life?
The key sections of Paul’s writings that address this issue are found in his epistles to the Hebrews, Galatians, and Ephesians. I am aware that there is debate over the authorship of Hebrews, but I will be taking the position that Hebrews was authored by Paul. Space prevents me from going in depth on a defense of the Pauline authorship of Hebrews; it is also beyond the scope of this paper, but I will provide a few points of defense for the Pauline authorship of Hebrews. In his lectures on this subject Sam Waldron provides these seven reasons why it is plausible that Paul wrote Hebrews:
Hebrews is the letter written by Paul to the Jews mentioned in 2 Peter 3:15-16.
The author of Hebrews was well-known to the recipients of the letter, and this strongly implies that it was Paul.
The circumstances and familiar mention of Timothy in Hebrews 13 strongly implies the Pauline authorship of the letter.
The traditional (or external) evidence for the Pauline authorship, when properly considered, is overwhelming in its testimony to the Pauline authorship.
The subject matter is such that it is appropriately and almost necessarily attributed to the Apostle Paul.
The circumstances in connection with the writing of this letter (its date and place of origin) tend to confirm its Pauline authorship.
There are remarkable grammatical correspondences between Hebrews and the letters of Paul.
With all of these arguments in mind, let us look at Paul’s view of the ceremonial law in the book of Hebrews.
In Hebrews 1:1-3 Paul writes,
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
There is much to say about these verses but some points that are helpful to our discussion are that there is clearly a new and greater reality and revelation that has arrived in the person and work of the Son. The work of the Son making “purification of sins” is also crucial. As Phillip Ross says concerning this statement,
“The critical event for the Mosaic Law is that God’s son has made purification of sins … never again will anyone need to stand before an altar or sprinkle blood on the mercy seat. To go against this is to refuse the God who has spoken his final word in his son.”
This is of great importance to our analysis of the HRM. Do they understand that though Jesus keep the entire Torah in His earthly life, He affected a change of covenants and therefore fulfilled and accomplished elements of the Mosaic Law that cannot and should not be repeated after His death, burial, and resurrection? This is where the doctrine of the three-fold division of the law comes in. Because they in the HRM take the whole Mosaic Law as an indivisible unit, they have to say that ultimately the actions of the Son do not alter the Mosaic Law, because to do away with ceremonial elements of the Law would mean that they would either have to also reject the rest of the Torah as binding or admit that there are divisions within the Law. The book of Hebrews goes on to make distinctions between ceremonial and moral law; as Ross points out, “It is hard to dispute claims that Hebrews’ focus is on the cultic dimensions of the Torah or that it confines itself almost exclusively to the priestly Torah, or cultic laws of Leviticus.” Take Hebrews 9:1 and 9:9-10 as an example,
Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary … Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation.
Ross commenting on this section says, “It represents a purposeful demarcation of the laws relating to the tabernacle and sacrifice.” Yet another example that can be offered from the book of Hebrews that points to a clear distinction between ceremonial and moral law is Hebrews 10: 5-10,
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
In these OT quotes the LORD seems to be making sacrifices and offerings to be of lesser importance, even secondary to a life of moral obedience as Ross points out about the life of Jesus:
His life proclaimed the desirability of doing God’s will in contrast to the undesirability of sacrifice and burnt offering; his death proclaimed the abiding demands of mercy and morality, yet the end of sacrifice and offering. In using this strand of Old Testament teaching, Hebrews affirms, indeed depends upon prioritisation in the law and treatment of ‘ceremonial’ laws as a distinctive component in the Mosaic code.
These conclusions seem unavoidable. However, I will include one more verse from the book of Hebrews to strengthen even further the position that the Mosaic Law has divisions between the ceremonial and moral laws and that the ceremonial laws are fulfilled and removed by the work of Christ. The last verse is Hebrews 10:1, “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.” In other places in Hebrews the word “copy” is also used of the things pertaining to the ritual and cultic aspects of the Law, so what ultimately does this mean? Ross delivers a potent explanation by saying,
With the coming of reality, priests and sacrifices, along with the earthly tabernacle and all the laws that specifically proclaimed its existence in the midst of the people, must go. They were shadows and copies, something that cannot be said of the entire law. Of what could the second commandment against idolatry be a copy?
With a healthy understanding of the three-fold division of the Law, one can take all of what has just been said and agree whole heartily that the ceremonial aspects of the Law are clearly done away with because of Christ, and one does not have to worry that they are sacrificing the rest of the Law, but because the HRM finds removing any aspect of the Mosaic Law to be “lawlessness” they have to continue to hold on to this rather absurd notion that despite all of what was just discussed, the ceremonial aspects of the law should still be followed by Christians as a demonstration of their faith working itself out in loyal obedience. One example I will offer is that of an HRM teacher named Jim Staley. In his debate against Chris Rosebrough on the Sabbath he was asked by Rosebrough that if the temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt would he present himself three times a year at the temple (as a part of obedience to the feast ordinances). Staley responded to the question by saying, “Absolutely, I would do my best to always honor my king.” That reply should say it all. He would do the very thing that Paul was urging the Hebrews not to do, which is to go back to the shadows and copies. How one can read the book of Hebrews and come to the conclusion that we as Christians should still make an effort to go and observe the feasts at the temple in Jerusalem is astonishing. But this is what happens when you have an OT dominant hermeneutic and a faulty view of the Law. The sad part is that many in this movement don’t see the reality that Christ has fulfilled these ceremonial types for them as Martyn Lloyd-Jones has said, “But seeing it all fulfilled and carried out in Him, I say I am fulfilling it all by believing in Him and by subjecting myself to Him. That is the position with regard to the ceremonial law.”
When coming to Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians we see the same consistent teaching that we found in Hebrews concerning the ceremonial law. In Ephesians 2:11-16 Paul writes:
Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.
The key phrase in this section of Scripture which is important for our study is that Christ has “broke down the barrier of the dividing wall … which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances.” In the temple at Jerusalem there was a wall in the outer court that separated Jews and Gentiles which was called the Soreg. It symbolized the ceremonial division between the groups as Gentiles were considered unclean and not allowed to pass the wall, otherwise they would be defiling the temple, and this was because the Law of commandments contained in ordinances made the Gentiles unclean. Robert Martin commenting on this section states;
According to the context, the law that Christ abolished was the law that constituted a barrier between Jews and Gentiles. But were the Ten Commandments such a barrier? Was the moral law the occasion of the enmity between Jews and Gentiles? No … It was the law of circumcision – more specifically, it was the ceremonial law, which declared that uncircumcised Gentiles were unclean.
Calvin also commenting on these verses says,
“The Jews were separated, for a certain time, from the Gentiles, by the appointment of God; ceremonial observances were the open and avowed symbols of that separation.”
Here again we see why an understanding of the three-fold division of the law is important. The text clearly states that Christ has abolished and broken down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles and that dividing wall is the ceremonial law epitomized in the circumcision command. If you hold to the three-fold division of the law this text is no problem. The moral law is not being touched here; what is being addressed is the temporary divinely instituted laws that separated God’s people from the rest of the world until the time of reformation, until the time of the Messiah, who is reconciling all things in Himself, to the glory and praise of God. There is redemptive-historical escalation that is going on here that those in the HRM are missing. The HRM wants to rebuild the wall and have Gentile Christians become Jewish Christians. Because of their understanding of the Law they do not see and rejoice in the progressive character of God’s unfolding plan of redemption and New Covenant of grace. Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed for us, and His blood has reconciled both Jews and Gentiles to God and to one another. Yeshua Hamashiach (Jesus the Messiah) is the substance.
One objection that could be brought up to all of this is that Paul observed aspects of the ceremonial law like the feasts and attending the temple while it was still standing. However, the reply should be readily made that he did so as not to offend the weaker brother and he was seeking to win his fellow non-Christian Jews to the Lord. In the midst of the Judaizing controversy within the first century and its aftermath, Paul would be diplomatic and expedient in trying not to offend his fellow sensitive Jewish Christians. But that was because Paul was also a Jew; he adamantly rejected that idea that Gentile Christians should be made to observe any ceremonial laws. And this is where we turn to next in the book of Galatians.
In the epistle to the Galatians we see Paul writing against the Judaizing heresy that was teaching Gentile Christians that if they wanted to be saved, they not only had to believe in Christ, but they also had to be circumcised in accordance with the Law. A full outline and exposition of this epistle is beyond the scope of this paper, but a few verses should be highlighted in view of dealing with the HRM. The first is Galatians 1:6-8:
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!
Paul is cursing a “Christ +” justification that seeks to add human observance of the Law onto the perfect imputed righteousness of Christ. Robert Raymond adds a helpful observation to our study by saying,
“It should be remembered that the letter addresses itself to a very earnest, very pious, and very Christian sort of heresy and crushes it with an unqualified anathema.”
This is an important insight because this is very similar to the HRM. They come off as very sincere, very zealous, and very pious, but their teachings come dangerously close to falling under Paul’s anathema. Many within the HRM would say that they don’t teach that to be justified one must also keep the ceremonial law, but they do say that a true living and obedient faith to Yeshua will show itself by observing the ceremonial laws and that if one lives a life disregarding the ceremonial laws then that person’s salvation is questionable. For example, an HRM teacher named Rob Skiba has said that eating bacon, Sunday church, partaking in Christmas, and not keeping the Saturday Sabbath will put a person in Hell.
A second text from Galatians that addresses the teachings of the HRM directly is Galatians 2:11-16, 19-20:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified … For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
Here we have words from Paul that attack right at the heart of the HRM. As Raymond comments, “to live like Jews [Ἰουδαΐζειν, lit. ‘to Judaize’, occurs only here in the New Testament and means ‘to live according to Jewish customs and commandments’]” As we have seen above, these Jewish customs and commandments were the ceremonial laws that Christ did away with. Paul is explicitly rebuking Peter for Judaizing and compelling the Gentiles to do the same, the exact thing that those in the HRM are advocating Gentile Christians should do in our day! Raymond adds further remarks to this section by stating that “Paul set before Peter here an either/or—either attempt to achieve righteousness ‘through the law’ and in doing so negate the value of Christ’s cross-work or die to the law through union with Christ in his death and live to God through his life.”
One final text from Galatians that shows a distinction in Paul’s view of the moral law and ceremonial law is Galatians 5:6 where Paul says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.” Raymond’s comments are very enlightening here as well when he says:
The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,’ love being viewed here as active obedience to God’s commandments. Contrary to what most studies have concluded, by setting circumcision, which was itself a ceremonial command of God, in contrast to the ‘commandments of God’ (ἐντολῶν θεοῦ), as he does in 1 Corinthians 7:19, Paul distinguishes here between the ethical and the ceremonial, that is, between the permanent and the temporary aspects of the Law, insisting on the essentiality of keeping God’s moral law while at the same time insisting on the non-essentiality and insignificance of keeping the ceremonial law.
I am not sure how anyone who holds to the views propagated in the HRM can get around these verses. It perhaps shows why some within the movement end up rejecting the canonicity of Paul’s letters.
Drawing to a conclusion, I can understand the desire to try and get back to a simple and pure form of Christianity in light of all the foolishness that we see going on in the Church today, and there is nothing wrong with being interested with the Jewish foundations of the faith, but, as we have seen, this desire and interest has literally led people into a reincarnation of the Judaizing heresy of the 1st century. The similarities between HRM and the Judiazers are so stunningly similar I find it hard to believe how anyone within in the movement could not notice this. I see within the HRM a violent reaction against a lot of the antinomianism that comes from those within the dispensationalist camps. In their reaction against dispensationalism, those within the HRM have fallen into the opposite error of legalism. I would hope that they can see that there is a more biblical, historically faithful and mediating position between legalism and antinomianism in the three-fold division of the Law that is held to in Reformed theology. The HRM is also very much a restorationist movement; once you accept their teachings you have to admit that the early church went into apostasy almost immediately and only now in the last few decades has the church begun to be restored. Sadly, this is also why we see some from this movement end up converting to Judaism. They have fallen into the error that Paul warns about in Titus chapter 3 where is says in verse 9, “But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain.” In the end, the Hebrew Roots Movement seems to be at best a type of Neo-Judaizing sect and at worst, a full-blown damnable heresy.
 “Who Are We and What Do We Believe?” Date accessed, June 4, 2020, https://hebrewroots.info/what-is-the-hebrew-roots-movement.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Tim Chaffey, “Dangers of the Hebrew Roots Movement,” Answers in Genesis, March 17, 2018, https://answersingenesis.org/presuppositions/dangers-hebrew-roots-movement/.  G. Richard Fisher, “Bewitching believers through the Hebrew Roots Movement,” The Berean Call, January, 1, 2014, https://www.thebereancall.org/content/january-2014-bewitching-believers-hebrew-roots.  Ibid.  “What is the Hebrew Roots movement?” date accessed June 4, 2020, Got Questions, https://www.gotquestions.org/Hebrew-roots.html.  Samuel E Waldron, “Life and Theology of Paul.” Lectures given at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary. https://www.cbtspathway.org/student_lesson/show/907188?lesson_id=4284970§ion_id=11871403.  Phillip S. Ross, From the Finder of God (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications Ltd, 2010), 267-268.  Ibid, 269.  Ibid.  Ibid, 271-272.  Ibid, 273.  Jim Staley, “SABBATH DEBATE With Chris Rosebrough” (Debate occurred at Passion For Truth Fellowship, St. Charles, MO, May, 10, 2014).  D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 170.  Robert Paul Martin, The Christian Sabbath (Montville, New Jersey: Trinity Pulpit Press, 2015), 240.  Ibid, 241-242.  Ibid, 243.  R. L. Reymond, Paul, Missionary Theologian (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 138.  Dean Odle, “Rob Skiba’s Double-Speak on Salvation,” Feb 20, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYZ6eyZ3o1M&feature=youtu.be&t=119.  R. L. Reymond, Paul, Missionary Theologian (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 129.  Ibid.  Ibid, 477.
Chaffey, Tim. “Dangers of the Hebrew Roots Movement,” Answers in Genesis, March 17, 2018, https://answersingenesis.org/presuppositions/dangers-hebrew-roots-movement/.
Fisher, G. Richard. “Bewitching Believers Through the Hebrew Roots Movement,” The Berean Call, January, 1, 2014, https://www.thebereancall.org/content/january-2014-bewitching-believers-hebrew-roots.
Got Questions. “What is the Hebrew Roots movement?” Date accessed June 4, 2020, https://www.gotquestions.org/Hebrew-roots.html.
Hebrew Roots of Christianity. “Who Are We and What Do We Believe?” Date accessed June 4, 2020 https://hebrewroots.info/what-is-the-hebrew-roots-movement.
Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.
Odle, Dean. “Rob Skiba’s Double-Speak on Salvation.” Feb 20, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYZ6eyZ3o1M&feature=youtu.be&t=119.
Paul Martin, Robert. The Christian Sabbath. Montville, New Jersey: Trinity Pulpit Press, 2015.
Reymond, R. L. Paul, Missionary Theologian. Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2000.
Ross, Phillip S. From the Finder of God. Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications Ltd, 2010.
Staley, Jim. “SABBATH DEBATE With Chris Rosebrough” Debate occurred at Passion For Truth Fellowship, St. Charles, MO, May, 10, 2014.
Waldron, Samuel E. “Life and Theology of Paul.” Lectures given at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary. https://www.cbtspathway.org/student_lesson/show/907188?lesson_id=4284970§ion_id=11871403.