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Universality and Particularity

written by S I
June 26, 2011

(with Asher Intrater)

Jewish Philosophy deals much with the concepts “Universality” and “Particularity.” Universal principles deal with people from all nations. The creation story, for instance, is universal. Moral principles, such as not to murder or steal, are also universal.

Particularity is “ethno-centric,” dealing with one people group alone. Much of the narrative in Hebrew Scriptures deals with the “particular” history of the nation of Israel alone. The Bible, as a whole, has both universal and particular elements.

To the degree that the Torah reveals the one God to mankind, it is universal. To the degree that it describes the covenants of the Levitical priesthood and the Jewish people, it is particular. However, the universal and particular elements are intertwined and interdependent, like the positive and negative poles of electric current.

During the gospels, Yeshua (Jesus) concentrates His evangelistic ministry on Jews in particular (Matthew 10:5-6; 15:26). After He was raised from the dead, He gave instructions to His disciples to proclaim their faith in Israel’s Messianic King to the whole world (Matthew 24:14; 28:19, Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47).

The disciples expected to “restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6).” However, Yeshua instructed them to be witnesses of Him “unto the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).” He expanded their understanding of the kingdom from particular to universal. The kingdom of God is both particular (its capital in Jerusalem) and universal (reaching all nations).

The tension over this transition is seen throughout the book of Acts. Simon Peter’s vision of the sheet and his preaching to the Romans was criticized by some of the Jewish believers (Acts 10 – 11). The conflict brought about the first apostolic council (Acts 15). The council made the decision to universalize the gospel message for all nations, yet did not cancel the particular calling of the Jewish believers.

The apostles made a distinction between universal laws for Gentile converts versus the Torah commandments incumbent upon the Jewish people alone. While Paul (Saul) was the greatest proponent of the international church and universal theology, he maintained the ethno-centric aspects of his own Jewish identity and life style.

In the Apostle Saul’s address to the religious Jews in the Temple (Acts 22), he faced little opposition when speaking of his vision of Yeshua. However, the moment he spoke of his mission to the Gentiles, the crowd went into an uproar (Acts 22:21). In his epistles to the Gentile churches, he encourages them that Jews and Gentiles are equal in the faith.

The New Covenant scriptures were written in Greek, because Greek was the international or universal language of the first century, as English is in modern times. However, Yeshua and His disciples spoke Hebrew among themselves and to their countrymen, as that was the language of the Jewish people in Israel (Acts 21:40; 22:2; 26:14). Within our congregations in Israel, we speak Hebrew, yet when we publish teachings internationally, we use English. There was conflict in the early church between those who spoke Hebrew and those who spoke Greek (Acts 6:1).

The destruction of the Temple in 70 AD drastically changed the Jewish world view. Rabbinic Judaism was consolidated by the Yavne council in the early second century. Meanwhile the faith of the early Messianic Jews became more universalized, de-centralized and spread to the Gentile nations. These two streams, (the Judaism of the Yavne rabbis and the Judaism of Yeshua’s apostles) developed on parallel lines, often inter-weaving, often clashing.

Christianity and Judaism in the second and third centuries became polarized. Classic Christianity moved toward an extreme “replacement” view, whereas Rabbinic Judaism went toward extreme ethno-centricity. The dynamic balance between particularity and universality in early Messianic Jewish and Christian congregations was soon lost.

Faith in Yeshua the Messiah, as described in the New Covenant, is both universal and particular. Yeshua is universal as the “son of God” (Romans 1:4) and particular as the “son of David” (Romans 1:3). Any person can receive the Holy Spirit at any time and in any place (Acts 2:17), yet when Yeshua returns, He will set His feet on the Mount of Olives on a particular place at a set time.

The parable of the Olive tree in Romans 11 describes the merging of these two world views: the root is particular; the universal branches are grafted in; the natural branches were cut off, yet will return to be grafted in. This merging of the universal and the particular, of Israel and the Church, is a mystery, which requires a special revelation to be understood (Ephesians 3:3-6).

The resurgence of Jewish believers in Yeshua and the re-establishment of the state of Israel are restoring the original balance of these issues. We Messianic Jews need to embrace all the universal spiritual and moral aspects of the gospel, while at the same time being faithful to God’s particular calling and covenants with our people.


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