One of the more interesting and controversial religious movements in the last 50 years has been Messianic Judaism – a name that describes people who were raised as Jews, but came to the belief that the Jesus of the New Testament is the Messiah of the Jews. Since the rejection of Jesus' divinity is one of the basic convictions of all forms of Judaism, whether liberal or conservative, this latest “sect” has hardly been welcomed as part of the world-wide family of Jewry. Rather, MJs (Messianic Jews) have been rejected as traitors and apostates. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that MJs have no right of return to Israel, and defines them as “converts” to another religion.
In contrast to the Jewish attitude, some conservative Christians embraced them as fellow believers, only to be rebuffed by the MJs, who have a strong antipathy to Gentile Christianity, which they consider a perversion of authentic apostolic faith. So Messianic Judaism exists in a state of tension with both its progenitors – rejected by the parent it desires to please, but accepted by the one it seeks to differentiate itself from. Its very existence is a challenge to both established religions, as it forces them to examine their own boundaries and key doctrines.
There is a lot of good that can be said about MJ as a movement: it has challenged Judaism to re-examine its own messianic expectations and post-Holocaust eschatology. It has caused conservative Christianity to acknowledge the Jewish roots of its own beliefs and even, to some extent, repent of its historic anti-semitism – so much so that the best friends of Israel in the modern world are American evangelicals. It has made both religions very uncomfortable, which is a sign of spiritual ferment. Messianic Judaism has been both a bridge between the church and the synagogue, and a subject of controversy between them.
So what's not to like, especially if you are an evangelical? The relationship between evangelicals and MJs has been a two-way street. If MJ's have adopted the evangelical mantra of “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” in return some Gentiles have been Judaicized. MJs have pointed out the differences between faith in the Messiah as experienced in the 1st Century Jerusalem church, and that of the modern compromised American church, with its 2000 years of Greek/Roman/Catholic/Protestant accretions. “Your religion is not the true faith,” insists the MJ to the churchgoer, “it is not the true worship which the Father requires.” The solution is to return to the Jewish foundations of the Gospel, to the 1st Century Jewish worldview of Jesus Himself and his immediate disciples.
This is not just a matter of theological theorizing. It gets very practical. I have Christian friends who do not celebrate either Christmas or Easter, because these are non-biblical holidays, with supposedly pagan roots. MJs observe Pesach instead of Easter, and Saturday worship instead of Sunday. They refer to the Hebrew calendar (this is the year 5773), and many observe the annual schedule of Feasts and holy days. Some Gentile wannabe MJs adopt dietary rules adapted from Jewish traditions, or follow a Jewish practice of referring to the deity as “G-d.” Some attend two services a week, one at the regular Bible-believing church on Sunday, the other at a Messianic Fellowship on Saturday. These Gentile MJs have a foot in both camps. And this is where we get into difficulties.
There are two main problems with the backwash of Messianic Judaism into evangelical Protestantism. The first is the problem of the Gentile believer. These Gentiles are not Jews, religiously or ethnically. They have never been Jews. So not only do Jewish customs have no authority over them, but the Gentiles have no right to adopt them. I may admire American Indian beliefs and values, but that doesn't give me the right to claim tribal membership. Similarly, these Gentiles are at best pseudo-Jews who are stealing ethnicity. At worst, they are self-deluded Christians who do not feel confident in their right-standing with God. For them, it is not enough to be a blood-washed believer justified by faith; instead one has to add to that a “higher level,” or a “purer faith,” free of the adulterations of generations of Gentile Christians.
It is one thing to be a supporter and an ally of Messianic Judaism. Likewise, it is beneficial to attend a Seder as a guest, so as to gain understanding of one's own sacrament of the Lord's Supper or Communion. But it is another step, and a wrong one, to skip the Easter service at one's church, or stop eating bacon for religious reasons, or to refer to Jesus as “Yeshua Hamashiach.” You cannot mix the covenants, as Paul makes very clear:
"When I saw that they [Peter & friends] were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?" (Gal 2:14)
"I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace" (Gal 5:3-4).
We might extrapolate this verse to include other Jewish regulations beside circumcision, for example observance of the religious Feasts or the Sabbath. If a Gentile puts himself under obligation to these customs – or feels that he or she is made more holy by observance of them – then that believer comes under the authority of the whole law. This is not a blessing, but a curse. The whole point of Jesus’ coming was to set people free from these obligations, not to universalize them!
Furthermore, the Jerusalem church was very specific in the minimal obligations that were laid upon Gentile believers:
"It is my judgment [James said], therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood" (Acts 15:19-20).
If this was the judgment of the Jerusalem leadership, by what authority do Gentile believers, or Messianic Jewish leaders who include Gentiles in their congregations, go far beyond this bare minimum? They are adding the wisdom of men to the Word of God, and that pollutes the Scripture.
This topic continues in the next post.