The Number One Danger of Hebrew Roots
I was really convicted at church this week. We’re working our way through the book of Philippians, and my Pastor, Tony Calabrese, brought a great message about how we can authentically live out our faith. He didn’t speak directly to Torahism and the Hebrew Roots Movement, but the application of his teaching to those theologies is striking. He put his finger on what I think is the biggest danger of Hebrew Roots theology. So let’s press into that idea by examining a passage in Philippians 3 that speaks directly to how being a Torah-observant Christian can lead us away from the heart of our heavenly Father. And I will do my best to channel Pastor Tony’s wisdom as we walk through it. In fact, pretty much all the good nuggets I will share are his.
Philippians is a letter Paul wrote to the church in the Roman colony of Philippi to thank them for the aid they had sent him and let them know he was sending Epaphroditus back to Philippi. And in chapter three, he spends some time warning the church about the false teachers among them. The passage we’re going to look at runs from verses 2-11:
2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.Philippians 3
Paul’s warnings in this passage point to one group of people. The “dogs and evildoers” he has in view are false teachers within the church. They are undermining Yeshua’s work by teaching that all Christians must follow Jewish law and keep all its religious duties. And these evildoers—Paul uses the derogatory term “dogs”—are causing disruption from within the church. They want to reframe Christianity through the lens of religious performance.
In verse two, Paul accuses them of “mutilating the flesh.” He uses the Greek word κατατομή (katatomē, mutilation) to imply that anyone who gets circumcised thinking it will somehow gain them membership in God’s family is disfiguring themselves for no reason. Because of the work of Yeshua, circumcision is no longer required for membership in God’s covenant people. Rather, “we are the circumcision who worship by the Spirit of God” (v. 3). Under Moses, the people of the covenant were marked or identified by physical circumcision. The people of the New Covenant are marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Paul adds that we “glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (v. 3). And therein lies the thrust of his warning to the church in Philippi. The “dogs” are those in the church who put their confidence in the flesh rather than Jesus. They weren’t denying Christ, but for them, it was Jesus plus something more. They wouldn’t state it this openly, but they essentially said, “We love Jesus, we believe in His sinless life, and the cross, and His resurrection…but that’s not enough.” They were teaching, just like Torahism teaches today, that there are things we need to add to our faith to be mature Christians or achieve true righteousness in God’s eyes. Rather than trusting that the work of Jesus took care of all that, they were putting their confidence in that “something more.” This is why, starting in verse four, Paul reminds them of his own impeccable credentials.
4 If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.Philippians 3
In contemporary vernacular, Paul is saying to those false teachers, “You think your religious performance is solid? Hold my beer.” He far surpassed them at their own game of religious importance. “You think you’re good at following the rules?” Paul asks. “Look at my resume.” And he wasn’t parading his credentials to show how great he was. He was explaining that he used to be where those false teachers are now. He used to put his confidence in those things, too. But something happened.
On a road outside Damascus, on his way to persecute believers, the apostle Paul had a life-changing encounter. He met the risen Jesus. He came to faith, and his whole world turned upside down. As a result of this radical transformation, Paul realized that his personal performance had no value as righteousness. He was really good at doing these religious things and had passionately pursued them his whole life. But after meeting Yeshua, Paul recognized how little his accomplishments and religious performance amounted to.
7But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faithPhilippians 3
The phrase “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law” (v. 9) is telling. Paul no longer puts his confidence in his religious performance or credentials; in his “flesh.” In fact, he refers to his impressive résumé of righteous accolades as “rubbish.” And the ESV translation is just being polite here. The Greek word translated as “rubbish” is σκύβαλον (skybalon), which means animal dung. Compared to the righteousness he found in Jesus, Paul’s lifelong religious performance amounted to a big pile of…well, camel poop. Once we’ve met Jesus, we can no longer treasure our human activities and religious pedigrees. Don’t misunderstand. Paul is not saying those things are wrong or bad. But rather, they are s worthless as fecal matter compared to knowing Jesus. And further, keeping those things doesn’t add to our righteousness. So that is not where our confidence or our focus should be placed.
A Holy Offense
And Paul is worked up about it. He’s angry. It’s the kind of visceral reaction many of us had to the two young climate activists throwing tomato soup on a beautiful original Van Gogh painting. Paul saw the self-righteousness of these false teachers as defacing a beautiful and precious thing. It was toxic. It was hurting and sabotaging Christ’s bride, the Church.
This is the same thing that angered Jesus. He warned about the “yeast of the Pharisees” in all three synoptic gospels, referring to their hypocrisy and self-righteousness. And as Paul said elsewhere, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor 5:6). Even the smallest amount of self-righteousness—of trying to make ourselves right with God through external religious performance—can poison the ministry of the Church and weaken the faith of believers. As Pastor Tony said, “Even a little bit of self-righteousness will choke out the grace of Jesus in our lives if we’re not careful.” When it comes to knowing Yeshua and being in right-standing with God, Paul says our lists of religious activities are like bringing a pile of manure to God and saying, “Hey, I did this for you.” Consider Psalm 51.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.Psalm 51
This passage speaks of the opposite of self-righteousness and religious performance. It’s a humble spirit, sorrow for our sins, and dependence on God, not our performance, for our righteousness. These are the things that touch the heart of our Father. And Paul is teaching in Philippians 3 that once he met Jesus, he stopped trusting in his own accomplishments, as impressive as they were. He tossed out his self-righteousness like so much garbage and put his confidence in Yeshua’s righteousness. And why did he do that?
8…in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.Philippians 3
Don’t miss this. It’s not the righteousness of our own that comes from flawlessly performing a list of religious activities. But the righteousness from God that comes through faith. One is self-righteousness, and the other is God’s righteousness. And what is Paul after?
10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.Philippians 3
It’s as if Paul is piloting a sailboat and singularly focused on reaching the destination of Knowing Jesus. He’s throwing everything overboard that is slowing him down or could send him off course. Everything that doesn’t matter gets tossed into the sea. And for Paul, that included all his religious accomplishments, activities, credentials, and accolades. It was all counted as loss.
Paul came face-to-face with Jesus Himself, and he exchanged doing for knowing. He came to count all the things he did—his activities and his credentials—as loss. He traded them for the gain of knowing Jesus. For what he called the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (v. 8). Paul re-oriented his entire life around the person of Jesus.
And this is where I was so convicted by Pastor Tony’s sermon. I know I need to do the same thing. I can get so caught up in learning about Jesus that I neglect the pursuit of knowing Jesus. And in that sense, Paul is a great role model for us. We need a complete re-orientation around Jesus. Not around Moses, or the Torah, or the Law. Around Jesus.
Wrap it up, Solberg
Our Hebrew roots friends keep the weekly Shabbat and the annual feasts. They don’t eat pork or shellfish. And none of those things are wrong for a New Covenant believer to do. But they don’t earn us anything, either. Those rituals don’t add to our status in God’s eyes or make us more righteous, mature, or blessed. Paul did all those things blamelessly. But once he met Jesus, he came to count them as loss, as garbage.
The passage we looked at in Philippians 3 reveals the dangerous side of Torahism. What that theology does—and I have witnessed this many times in my work in the world of Hebrew Roots—is take our focus off of Jesus and His Gospel. The more Torah-observant we become, the more our confidence, ever so subtly, shifts away from the saving work of Christ and toward our religious or moral performance. The key to the Christian life isn’t trying harder or performing better. It’s trusting God and knowing Him.
Again, Paul’s goal, as he states in verse 8 and again in v 10, is “That I may know him.” Not that I may do more for Him. For Paul, it’s no longer about doing but knowing. As fallen humans, it’s easy to prioritize doing things for God over knowing God. And I am the chief sinner in that regard. It is scandalous that we don’t need to perform righteous duties for the living God to see us as righteous. It’s tough to accept our righteousness for exactly what it is: a free gift of love. Our religious performance doesn’t make us righteous. It’s Yeshua’s performance on the cross that makes us righteous. Therefore, we need to be very careful that we’re not following a list of religious do’s and dont’s and missing the heart of our Father. The reminder for our Hebrew roots friends, and for me personally, is this: Let’s not be so busy performing for Him that we miss the real goal of knowing Him.